Monthly Archives: August 2015

Episode 126: Round Two

Captain Ortega peered around the domed shell of the power generator, one of the countless subsystems he’d seen in the vessel since breaking out of his cell. It was one of the first genuinely new pieces of technology he’d witnessed in Dyson’s arsenal, though its purpose was as old as the earliest human colonies, if not older: generating and manipulating power in such a way that different systems could interact with each other without causing anything to overload or suffer an outage. The device was intuitive and efficient from what Ortega could tell, and likely handled a lot of the trickier power management for his immediate area, though likely not for any crucial systems that could be easily exploited. Fortunately, when Trell finally arrived, she wouldn’t be able to use it to sabotage the vessel.

The other benefit that the power generator provided was its size and location. He could easily crouch behind it for a good view of the room it was in and even a look down the hallway from which Trell was most likely to make her entrance. Ortega had made some assumptions about Trell’s cell location, and it was possible that his insights on the layout of the ship had been wrong. Likely not wrong enough for her to be taking this long, but he was willing to wait longer just in case she ran into any complications.

Someone tapped on Ortega’s shoulder. His usual armored flight suit wouldn’t have even allowed him to feel it, but the vesperweave prison uniforms provided by the Dyson forces made the gentle prod accessible. Ortega took a quick breath and jumped forward, just in time to miss being hammered in the back of the head by an enemy first.

Veering around in the middle of the hall, he saw one of the special operations soldiers that invaded Tan’s ship to retake it for the Dyson Empire. She wore the same dark-colored cybernetic stealth suit and the same six-eyed observation crown. The lenses rotated to refocus on Ortega as he left the attacker’s immediate range. She was perched to the corner of the wall, and bracing herself with one arm against the generator’s dome, but shaking her fist at Ortega.

“Aw, come on,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do that! I had the perfect set up, too. I guess that kind of thing just doesn’t work in real life.”

“It’s worked against me more than I’d care to admit,” said Ortega. “Gave me a lot of practice in not falling for it.”

“Ah. I guess I had to enter this kind of career a lot sooner to be able to get the drop on Captain Andrew Ortega of the Astroguard.”

“I think you’ve got the advantage on me here, in more ways than one,” he said, entering a defensive stance. “And you probably could’ve gotten the drop on me if you didn’t tap my shoulder first.”

“Can’t blame me for going for the gold, can you?” she said, dropping off the wall and walking out from behind the generator. “And the name’s Alsafi. You probably don’t remember because of the heat of the moment, how quickly it happened, and the mask, but I was one of the Wraithstrike agents who took you down in Tan’s ship.”

“I wondered how many of you there were,” he said. “And if I’d met you in that group. How did you find me?”

“Total luck,” she said. “I hop in and out of the corridors when I’m on duty. The Emperor’s additions to these cysuits, plus my own physiological something or other I don’t have the backing to go into, makes that kind of drifting easy.”

And then she vanished.

Ortega’s eyes widened. He ran to the generator and looked between it and the wall, deeper into the nook he’d taken as his own hiding spot. Instinctively, he turned around just in time to see Alsafi’s fist.

The blow knocked him back into the niche between the wall and the machine. He shook his head and looked up to see Alsafi, unholstering an energy blaster and aiming it at him.

“This makes twice I’ve taken you out, Ortega,” she said. “I’m sure that short-range teleportation is a huge force multiplier, especially when the enemy’s not expecting it, but still. Let’s get you back to the brig.”

The blaster in her hands glowed with an eerie, orange light and Ortega closed his eyes to ready himself for the energy burst.

Episode 125: The Matter of Facts

Nectra jumped from branch to branch, using her wings and her staff to balance as she spiraled over the obstacles of the jungle floor. Zack, following along, was getting mud in his shoes and manually pushing the thick vines and reeds of the terrain out of his way where he could while slowly climbing over or moving around the trees, fallen logs, and boulders where he couldn’t. Nectra would often vanish while moving ahead, but would always either turn back or wait for Zack to catch up.

“Nectra, you’ve gotta stop moving so fast.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking down. “We’re almost there. I don’t want him to suspect anything.”

“I doubt he will at first. Nectra, do you-”

“Wait… someone’s there, but it’s not him.”

“What?”

Without another word, Nectra jumped from the branch, opened her wings, and left Zack’s field of vision. Zack waited a moment, sighed, and resumed wading through a tangled mesh of reeds. Soon he pushed through and saw a comparatively open patch of jungle. Nectra perched on a branch above, gesturing down quietly at a human who stood with a bow and arrow.

“Chala?”

She turned and looked in Zack’s direction. She smiled, but looked anxious.

“Hello, Zack. I’m sorry, I’ve ruined your trial, I think. Or made it worse.”

“What? What do you mean? How?”

“When you arranged the ploy to find Nectra, you thought this Phantom Matador would be nearby. I decided to find him myself while you were still waiting for her to find you. I circled a lot… but really there are only a few places in this area that someone might comfortably wait. I found him.”

“Why did you do that?” he said.

“From everything they said about him, I guessed that he’d taken something from my forge. And he did. Only it’s not the stockpiled Virellium like I’d hoped, it was… he stole something else.”

“What was it?” asked Nectra.

Chala shouted, pulled her bow up, and shot an arrow straight toward Nectra. Nectra screamed and fell backwards, avoiding the arrow but dropping off her branch. She turned in the air and opened her wings, but not quickly enough to avoid slamming into the peaty soil.

Zack ran to Nectra, but the shangmere was already pushing herself up. She looked at Zack and Chala, smiling sheepishly. Chala, unprepared for the sudden appearance of shangmerian physiology, winced.

“Nectra, are you okay?”

“Sure, Zack,” she said. “Just scraped. Thanks, though. I forget that humans don’t think in three dimensions most of the time. Sorry!”

“Chala, this is Nectra.”

“Good meeting you?” she said. “So I guess your hunter isn’t out to kill you, then?”

“She’s out to clear her name,” said Zack. “And right now, she was helping me to find the Phantom Matador.”

“He was right here,” said Chala. “He left when I shot an arrow at him. Or… he didn’t leave so much as he faded.”

“He did that to you, too?” said Nectra. “I thought it was just me starting to lose it.”

“I think he has a rare psychic ability that lets him cloud people’s minds,” said Zack. “I’m not sure exactly what the extent of the ability is, but he’s had a lot of practice learning when and where to use it. He might not’ve even been in the clearing when you shot the arrow at him, for all we know. I think we need the answer to Nectra’s question, though.”

“Sure,” said Chala. “Sorry about that arrow.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” said Nectra. “What was it that he stole?”

“It was a Fact.”

“A fact?” said Nectra. “Like… a true concept?”

“No, a machine. They’re called Facts.”

“Oh,” said Zack. “Oh! Oh, I see… One of those… one of those things.”

“So, what is it?” asked Nectra. “I’m afraid I still don’t know.”

“It’s short for Artifact,” said Zack. “Bit of an ironic name to give something brand new. I think that was their name when they were new, but that was a century or two ago I think. They didn’t come from the Angelor Republic, though, right? I was never really a history student.”

“No, you’re right,” said Chala. “They came from a rare period of trade and information exchange between Glorien space and the Angelor Republic. They were allegedly brand new devices. We didn’t have any eyes or ears in Glorien space to let us know if they were legitimately new or not, but we had no reason to doubt it.”

“Then why call them Artifacts?” said Nectra. “Doesn’t the word mean something left over or… evidence of something that used to be around?”

“I think the emphasis was more on the word Fact than Artifact,” said Zack. “Artifact might’ve been a nod to them leaving the things around for us before they left and vanished into their own region of space again, though.”

“Right,” said Chala. “In addition to being shorthand for Artifact, the Facts were items that did one definite, specific thing, and did them well.”

“That’s what I never got about it, honestly,” said Zack. “We’ve got all sorts of things that only do one thing.”

“Yes, but most can be programmed to do more,” said Chala.

“Oh!” said Nectra. “So, it’s a hardware issue instead of a software one? Brilliant!”

“What is?” said Zack.

“Well, most devices are multi-purpose, even if they don’t look like it,” said Nectra. “Almost anything with a computer chip, really. Most things humans make use software, and that software can be upgraded or changed so that the computers can do different things, or do the same thing but better. Software takes time and memory, though, and uses resources to load, read, and enact. If something’s all hardware, it just does it automatically without any need to update anything. My Virellium tracker is like that, actually.”

“It’s usually more expensive,” said Chala. “To suit everyone’s needs, it’s easier to make generic computers that can have software instead of making very specific computer components that only do things one way. Plus the obvious problem of being hardware focused is that if a product has a flaw, you can’t just fix it with a software upgrade. If you come up with a better way of doing something, you can’t improve to the latest model without buying an all new system. Still, fans of hardware have a lot of speed and ease of resource management going for them. Glorien space allegedly had more of a hardware base, but generally as an artisanal practice rather than an industrial one.”

“So, what were you doing with one?” said Zack.

Chala took a breath.

“It’s what brought me to Mandrake. I’d learned that one might have been in the possession of an industrialist who came here quite some time ago. His ship never made it off the planet alive, though. I found it in his old ship, but it was broken. I’ve been trying to repair it ever since, and using the Virellium I’ve been gathering to power it whenever I think I’ve got another component working.”

“What’s it look like?” asked Zack.

“The base is like the lower end of an hourglass,” she said. “The glass curves in on itself, though, and isn’t what I’d call… orientable, apart from the copper base beneath it. Above the pinch, it sort of divides into two helically rising planes of glass surrounded by occasional copper plates. All the electronic components connect to the copper. I think the glass is there for conducting.”

“Glass doesn’t conduct electricity, though,” said Zack.

“It’ll conduct vibrations well enough, I bet,” said Nectra.

“Right… so, you’ve never been able to figure out what it does?”

“I’ve got some guesses,” said Chala. “Nothing I’d feel safe publishing and staking a career in anthropology on, even with a stockpile of Virellium to take home.”

“How dense is the Virellium, by the way?” asked Nectra. “I didn’t stop to check it out once I realized Zack was there.”

“You didn’t take any for yourself?” asked Zack.

“No, why would I?” asked Nectra. “Finding you’s always been the important thing here.”

“It’s not purified, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Chala. “It’s mostly tiny amounts bundled up in other substances or intermingled with other energies. I’d say there’s enough for me to retire on, though. It’d probably power a planet for a few weeks.”

“Incredible,” said Zack. “So… this story time’s great, but it doesn’t get us any closer to finding The Phantom Matador. We should pick up the trail again.”

“How?” said Chala. “He could be anywhere by now.”

“We’ll track him down,” said Zack. “Nectra knows where they’ve been crashing. Between my skills and her knowledge and skills, I think we should be fine.”

Nectra smiled, her mouth stretching wide enough to make her teeth apparent to anyone watching. Chala nodded.

“Okay,” Chala said. “Okay, good plan. I’ll pitch in, too. You’re going to need my knowledge of the terrain.”

“Can we take it, though” asked Nectra. “You live with these snake people, right? And Zack couldn’t take their help before, when he and I came here. It’s part of his trial or something, right?”

Zack rolled his eyes.

“I think catching the Phantom Matador before he causes more harm trumps that, Nectra,” he said.

“Actually… no, she’s right,” said Chala.

“What?”

“Seriously, Zack,” said Chala. “If you were a fellow Sthenite, I could probably help you to at least track him down without anyone caring much. But the Suzerain’s going to have to explain you very well to the other tribal leaders who don’t like us. Two humans helping each other on trials breaks too many rules for her to smooth over without ordering your execution. You’ll be fine without me.”

Zack cupped his hand over his face and thought. Nectra curiously stepped in front of him to take a look before she looked to Chala questioningly.

“You’re right,” he said, finally. “Which way’s your forge from here?”

“Northwest,” said Chala, pointing.

Zack looked up and followed Chala’s finger. He nodded.

“Come on, Nectra. Wish us luck, Chala.”

He turned to move through the jungle again, and Nectra spread her wings to leap into the trees. Chala waved to the departing shangmere and human as they vanished from view.

“Good luck, Tzak,” she said.

Episode 124: Meeting Renfield

Surshen slithered out of his tree at the changing of the guard, nodding to Maurlias as she arrived to begin her time watching.

“Are there any concerns to watch for?” she asked, preparing to climb into the tree.

“I saw three Torgan heading south instead of west,” he said. “I will inform the hunters.”

“Wonderful.”

“I also heard a distant report, like thunder but compressed, or like the human makes at her forge to the northwest. This was followed by smoke near the swamp. It reminded me of the fires in the sky that herald the arrival of the aliens.”

“I will keep watch for more changes like that,” she said. “Who will you inform of this, though?”

“It is the same issue,” he said. “I will inform the hunters.”

***

Carmen stepped out of the airlock and almost crashed into the wall. She rolled her eyes.

“Lousy space ships,” she said. “Never enough room to move around on these things…”

“I apologize for the accommodations,” said the voice of The Soul Survivor. “And it will only become more cramped as we usher your two friends in here as well.”

“Look, why’re you even interested in us?”

“It’s nothing personal,” he said. “No ulterior motive beyond the most obvious one. I’m rebuilding right now and while I have vast resources hidden away elsewhere, much of it is inaccessible. Kidnapping the three greatest racers from The Corona Cup will allow for a quick influx of funds once I leave this system.”

“Wait, that’s it?” said Carmen. “This is just about money?”

“Yes, I apologize. I do enjoy the reputation for high crimes that I have garnered across the galaxy, but to finance every robot army, death ray, and mass hypnosis I must, alas, sully my hands with the work of the common gangster. Napoleon’s greatest weakness and tactical failing was a belief that his supplies were limitless, and I refuse to fall for such a self-imposed ruse.”

“You think the Racing Federation will just roll over and pay you? I hate to say it, but a lot of those suits have backgrounds as people like me. They might’ve sold out, but they’re not pushovers.”

“Oh, I know,” said The Soul Survivor. “I have done this many times, and I’ve learned that those who run sporting events can afford great amounts of money, but they shouldn’t be treated greedily. You have the hotheads who’ll try to ‘handle things themselves’, the villains who write off their employed celebrities as acceptable losses, even the pragmatists who’ll contact law enforcement agencies or mercenaries. The trick… especially with people like you, Miss Shift… is to demand payment, but a small enough amount that the risk of jeopardizing you in some way is laughable from a financial standpoint. It really is a business, you see. I fully expect that I’ll be able to release you and your friends shortly. Or, at least, shortly after I leave this system. While the Dyson Empire hasn’t disrupted my own capabilities, they have deafened the ears of anyone who might hear what I have to say from here. If you would, please follow the hall to the left. The galley will be a more comfortable place for you than this hallway.”

Carmen turned and walked. The ship was designed with only a single occupant in mind, and as such the walk was a brief one. A door slid open as she neared the end of the hall, revealing a tiny room with food and beverage dispensers, a small table, and dim lighting. A man in a pilot’s uniform stood as Carmen entered.

“Hello!” he said. “It’s good to mee-”

“You!” said the voice of the Soul Survivor. Instead of hearing the voice from all around as she had been, the voice now came from a device that Carmen had assumed to be a water cooler, but when she looked at it closely she saw that it was, in fact, a partially reconstructed version of the robotic body that The Soul Survivor was known for inhabiting. The trademark dome, filled with bubbling water, was recognizable as soon as she focused on it thanks to the countless news reports that had featured him over the years.

“Me?” said Carmen. “Yeah, me. Your kidnapping victim. Who else would I be?”

“I-”

A silence filled the room. Carmen looked at the man at the table.

“Is he always this surprised by people?”

“No,” said the man, looking worried. “Never. I don’t know what’s-”

“Silence,” said The Soul Survivor. “I’m sorry. Miss Shift, seeing things through remote cameras does not always convey the same emotional resonance as they might when seen through my active sensors.”

“What emotional resonance?” said Carmen. “I thought this kidnapping was just business.”

“It is. Business to which I must return, in fact. Xorn’Tal needs to be picked up and his fronds will make this more of a challenge. This is Tan, the captain and pilot of this vessel according to The Dyson Empire. He’s playing the role of my Renfield for today.”

“Would you mind not calling me that?” said Tan.

“Very well,” said The Soul Survivor. “You can’t help but see a comparison though.”

“Even so.”

“Carmen, Tan will show you how the machinery works if you require sustenance. Much of it requires his empirical code to activate, a hard-coded mechanism that I haven’t had the time or need to modify.”

The bubbling in the jar lowered after that. Carmen looked at Tan and nodded.

“So. You work for Emperor Dyson and The Soul Survivor at the same time?”

“I don’t work for The Soul Survivor per se,” he said. “But we’re friends! I’m putting my job on the line here, but he’s in a pinch and could use some assistance. So… yeah. I guess you could say I’m in both of those camps right now.”

“We’re gonna be great friends, then, I can tell,” said Carmen.

Episode 123: Echo’s Soliloquy

“I don’t like where you’re going.”

Igneous stopped and felt a chill for the first time in weeks. She looked over her shoulder, and saw only the alien plants, mostly purples and yellows in this patch of the jungle. She was closing in on the primitive city filled with the snake-like creatures, and was just about to dive into the river that seemed to be the only way into their land that wasn’t carefully watched, probably because it was so visible that no one would think it to be a security risk anyway. All of the vegetation here was sparse enough that she felt confident that no one could sneak up on her, and certainly no one who spoke Pyrhian so fluently.

“You don’t want to go home?”

She had said it. She didn’t like that she’d been the one to say it, but she had.

“Still a lot to do,” she said, ignoring the fact that it looked like she was speaking to herself. It reminded her of an opera she had seen when she had been a young gust, an opera where the Pyrhian hero had confronted both her inner demons and the literal demons through soliloquy.

“That hasn’t stopped people before. In fact, it’s the primary thing that I hear when they don’t want to go home. There’s still so much undone… and as much as we would love to oblige, we just can’t. Not for everyone.”

“Quiet,” said Igneous, moving closer to the river. She stepped out of the underbrush, and felt exposed. The uppermost part of a wall of the city was visible just over a hill from here, and anyone on top of it looking in her direction would doubtlessly see the bright orange glow from her cracked hide.

“Why should I stay quiet? What will you do to me? Pummel me with your fists? Which do you think will harm me… the stone? The fire?”

Igneous neared the water. It was a reddish gray thanks to the soil Mandrake had in this region. There was another danger she faced when entering the water, but it was more a danger of discovery. In some ways, she was looking forward to it.

“And we’ve gone from verbal challenges to silence. Very well… continue playing outside a bit longer, but it’s growing dark. You’ll need to come in soon. Have fun playing with your human friends while you still believe in them. They’ll be gone soon enough when you’ve grown up and admitted that your real life has begun.”

Igneous scowled but refused to say anything more. She wasn’t sure why her own voice had betrayed her. She’d forgotten to check in the water’s stream to see if her own mouth had been moving or not, and wished the thought had come to her before now. After a few minutes, she was convinced that the voice wasn’t going to say any more.

She lowered a toe into the water and a jet of steam rose into the air. It grew bigger as she fully submerged. The water was cool, and while not as cold as the ice she’d grown accustomed to using over the previous few days it flowed over her, bringing new coolness before her own internal temperature could warm the water that was touching her. It was warmer than she wanted, but not stagnant.

She looked up through the surface of the water and worried about the cloud. It was so much larger and louder than the tiny smoke clouds that her feet had been leaving in the foliage everywhere she walked through the jungle, and the griseous steam would be more noticeable by far. After some time the steam reduced to a gentle amount that dissipated sooner.

She cautiously lifted her head above the water. The worst was over, and any damage that could have been done had already been done. She put one massive arm in front of the other and began swimming toward the nearby city.

Episode 122: Getting the Facts

“He’s nearby,” said Nectra, hopping back from Zack and twirling her staff. She set it into the soil and leaned into it, almost clutching it, with the shimmering blade of Virellium energy curving over her head. Zack carefully stood and inspected his pistols for damage.

“Near enough that he heard us planning, or near enough that we’ll find him in five, maybe ten, minutes?”

“The second,” she said. “Maybe longer if he sees you coming. He’s got sharp eyes.”

“I’ve got deep shadows,” said Zack. “We’ll see which one wins. Baurik? Or… Barik? Bar… Chala’s friend?”

“What?”

“I’m calling someone, I think his name is Baurik. He’s a Sthenite.”

A gentle shake of leaves sounded and the yellow and green-scaled Sthenite stood between them, ruffling his feathers and tasting the air with his tongue.

“Oh, look at him!” said Nectra. “Oh, he’s adorable! Don’t you think?”

“Yeah, you only get teeth like that on the cutest puppies and venom like that on the nicest echidnas. Hey, Baurik. Shtothro Nostrauhara?”

“Vashtara thaul Tzak vash.”

“You can tell what they’re saying?”

“No, but I’m good with sounds. I think I’m asking if we can leave and chase the Phantom Matador without all of Baurik’s friends in the bushes making us pin-cushions. I think he said that it’s fine. Where to?”

“Just across a stream west from here,” she said. “Will your friends come along to help us?”

“I doubt it,” said Zack. “This is part of my trial now.”

“Okay, then. Follow me.”

***

The Phantom Matador paced beneath the jungle canopy, his black mask and hat still covering his face despite the incredible heat. The shangmere had taken too long, and he wondered if he would have to rescue her again.

The snapping of a nearby twig brought a stop to his pacing. He stared in the direction of the disrupted foliage, wondering what kind of animal would care to stay so still after making a careless noise.

“It’s you, then,” he said. “Very well. Step out of your hiding place so that we might settle this face to face.”

An arrow sailed from the underbrush, but missed the Phantom Matador by over a foot. The black-garbed man tossed his head back and laughed with a musical tenor voice.

“The Phantom Matador won’t fall so easily! From the moment you laid eyes upon me, you were already deceived. It may be a breach of etiquette when I ask you to stop hiding when I continue to do so, but the conversation will be much less tiresome for both of us if you comply!”

A rustle of leaves to the left of the Matador announced the arrival of a human woman with black hair and a bow made from a machine. She neared the Matador, who raised an eyebrow.

“I confess, I expected you to be hiding elsewhere… was the twig snapping a diversion?”

“I moved after I shot the arrow,” she said. “I almost didn’t believe Zack when he said how you dressed. That cape has to be sweltering.”

“Fashion is always worth a little suffering,” he said. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I expected the only other human on the planet, and was not disappointed. It is curious that you know Zack Gamma, but not entirely surprising, given the circumstances.”

“Why did you kill the Sthenites near my hut?”

“They were trying to stop me,” he said. “They seemed very taken with the idea of preventing me from leaving.”

“Give it back.”

“Give what back?”

“What you stole.”

“Can one truly steal in a world with no laws?”

“There are more laws here than you know,” she said, nocking another arrow.

“Yes, yes, the tribal concerns and rules of the wild and all that,” he said. “You and I know better, though. Miss…?”

“Chala.”

“Miss Chala, I come from a more civilized and enlightened world view-”

“Most visitors to this planet feel that way. They all believe the Sthenites are worth exploiting.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t saying that humanity is more refined than the Sthenites, though from a biased point of view one might make that case. No, I was saying that within humanity I am more refined than your average individual.”

“Which led you to murder innocents in a village.”

“It was self defense,” he said. “And I certainly wouldn’t have been there if someone hadn’t been stockpiling a highly dangerous substance.”

“It isn’t dangerous if handled properly. And they would have only attacked you if you were handling it improperly. It’s not a secret to them. I’m not exploiting them. They know I have it, and that I can treat it with care.”

“So you DO believe that I stole Virellium from you.”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “Assuming you’re not just an insane murderer, you must have taken something, and Virellium is what there was to steal.”

“Are you sure you have… the Facts straight?”

Chala lowered her arrow.

“What?”

“Don’t play coy now. You heard me, and there was legitimate need to clarify when I did it. Do you have your Facts straight?”

“Facts?”

“Exactly.”

“So you did steal something,” she said. “But not the Virellium. …Why would you steal that?”

“I knew what it was the moment I saw it,” he said. “It may not be in my field, as it were, but the value is unmistakable. And say what you will about not exploiting these people… you KNEW the value of it. Why else would you even have it?”

“Give it back to me,” she said. “Give it back, and I won’t kill you right here.”

“Miss Chala, you are more than welcome to try,” he said.

Chala pulled back her arrow and released it, launching it directly at The Phantom Matador. The Matador seemed to vanish just before the arrow struck, allowing it to embed itself in a tree.

Episode 121: The Green and Purple Field

The three asteroid racers propelled their rides at the Dyson dogfighter that contained The Soul Survivor. Carmen led the charge, shouting a battle cry worthy of the greatest sports fan, with Vince and Xorn’Tal following suit. Carmen kept the vessel in her line of sight as long as she could to ensure that The Soul Survivor’s sensors could get a good look at her face before she had to let it drop below the horizon of her asteroid as she coasted toward it on an intercept course. With three asteroids about to smash into it, there was no need to go for a head-on collision when it would be many degrees of magnitude more awesome to completely disable the vessel and gloat. She braced for the impact.

“Uh, Carmen?”

“Not now, Vince! It’s time to rip into this thing and show the Survivor not to mess with us.”

“You’re already ripping into it. …and so is Xorn’Tal.”

“Query: vibrations?”

“I don’t know, you’re like… gliding through the ship, but there’s no impact. Like-”

“A hologram?!” shouted The Soul Survivor, his bombastic voice interrupting their communications channel. “You believe that I would surrender the tactical advantage of invisibility, and then simply wait in place for you to ram into my ship? You are as tactically clever as the rocks you ride!”

“Hey, if you keep shouting into our channel I’m gonna stop going easy on you,” said Carmen, calling on the experiences from countless turf rumbles to keep her voice from cracking. She furtively watched the sky, trying to find any trace of a cloaked ship.

“I welcome your redoubled efforts, And Fully Intend TO REDOUBLE MY OWNKSCHSHSHSHSHSHSHSREEEEEEEEEE-”

Carmen fell to her knees at the sudden squeal of an audio feedback loop, and temporarily lost control of her ride. She ripped the headset away and threw it onto the ground while she massaged her head and closed her eyes to turn off unnecessary stimulation. She could feel the uneasy tipping sensation of inertia creeping back in, and knew she’d have to reassert control quickly instead of just riding out the pain.

“Guys?” she said, and instantly wished she hadn’t since she knew that they couldn’t hear her without the headset. She opened her eyes and saw the headset sitting mere yards away. Taking a deep breath, Carmen reached out with her mind and slowed the spinning of the Kinetic Kuiper before crawling toward the device. As she neared it, she could tell that it was still issuing the ear-splitting noise, but the pitch wasn’t audible from more than a few feet away. She picked it up and flipped through a few channels before concluding that The Soul Survivor’s broadcast was affecting any channel she was likely to use. With communication between the racers effectively nullified, she switched off the headset.

A sudden inertic force kicked her through the air and a green and purple glow filled the sky above her. She willed the gravity to be stronger, and felt the pain from the feedback loop threatening to push into full migraine territory thanks to the extra exertion, and landed on the rocky surface of her ride. She tried pushing the asteroid, but nothing happened. She looked into the sky, half-expecting to see The Soul Survivor’s ship, but instead saw a strange arc of light, brighter than the rest of the green and purple glow, moving away from her atmosphere.

“Tractor beam,” she said to herself, reminded of the green energy field that had surrounded her car back on Helix when she and Zack had first tried leaving the ancient Super City.

Vince and Xorn’Tal zipped into view, rocketing past on their own asteroids. They had apparently both seen the beam of light that seemingly came from nowhere and were following it to its invisible point of origin. The vines of Xorn’Tal’s asteroid had come alive and were lashing wildly, effectively doubling the asteroid’s diameter as the titanic vegetation flirted with the hard vacuum of space. Vince’s ship had a subtler effect, with four large, almost tear-drop shaped segments peeling off of its sides and swirling around it. Carmen resisted the urge to mutter that juggling was for amateurs as the grasping vines and rotating rocks converged on the tractor beam’s invisible source.

The green and purple aura vanished, and Carmen again witnessed the unfiltered view of the stars and Mandrake. Xorn’Tal’s vines lashed where The Soul Survivor’s ship should have been, and Vince flew close enough that his four missiles would have slammed into it, but nothing happened.

Carmen reached for her headset and snapped it on. No horrible screeching sounded.

“Hello?” she said. Silence filled the channel. Right before she turned it off again, a distant click signified the presence of another line joining.

“Query: availability?”

“Xorn’Tal!” she shouted. “Great. I was worried when I didn’t hear anyone.”

“Channel: compromised/noisy/useless. Disconnection: warranted.”

“Makes sense. No sign of the tough guy?”

“Coward: Fled?”

Another click heralded the arrival of a new participant.

“Hello?” asked Vince.

“Greetingage,” said Xorn’Tal.

“Hey,” said Carmen. “Vince, I think you and Xorn’Tal might’ve chased him off.”

“I think he was counting on us to back down,” said Vince.

“I think you’re right,” said Carmen. “I’m guessing he wasn’t prepared to fight three at once.”

“I confess you are correct,” said the Soul Survivor, chiming in over their speakers. “But I have always been prepared for two.”

From a different region of space, the green and purple energy lanced toward Vince’s asteroid, smearing it with the tractor beam’s energy field and creating a barrier between the asteroid and the four smaller rocks floating around it. The beam of energy sliced through space, carrying Vince’s ship with it. Midway through the pendulous arc, the beam vanished, and the field began to dissipate, but only as Vince’s ride hurtled toward Xorn’Tal’s asteroid. Xorn’Tal’s vines spiraled together, possibly in an attempt to make a defensive cushion, and Carmen saw the telltale slowing of the asteroid that indicated that Flashman was trying to regain control of his ride. The two asteroids collided, slowly but with visible damage.

Carmen held her breath. Vince and Xorn’Tal had both had the right combination of training and practical experience to survive an impact like that, asteroid collisions being one of the primary concerns of the racing federation. Even so, a direct hit like that could leave someone dead.

“Xorn?!” Carmen shouted? “Vince?!”

“They can’t hear you,” said The Soul Survivor.

“You’re blocking my channel?”

“Either that, or they’re dead. I’d rather not say, as uncertainty is a powerful tool. Now, I commend your bravado in the face of unquestionable defeat, but I really do insist that you surrender.”

Carmen glared. Her asteroid shot through the void in the direction that she had last seen The Soul Survivor’s ship. From a different location the beam again arced through space, and once again locked onto Carmen’s asteroid.

“Foolish racer. Your psychic power is an incredible gift, but it can be shut down by a device so simple that it isn’t even regulated as a weapon by most militaries. Your mind would have to be magnified even beyond the power of mine to fight back against tractor beams. Why do you think that roving gangs of Petrakinetic pirates haven’t conquered systems by now? Why don’t the armies of known space employ petrakinetic divisions? Your power is a simple one, one that I can nullify at the push of a button.”

Carmen stared in the direction of the beam before turning her back on the invisible ship, looking toward Vince Flashman and Xorn’Tal. Their asteroids were beginning to drift apart. She noted a variance in the flow of Xorn’Tal’s asteroid and a twitching of the fronds and vines that grew from its surface. Vince’s changed its course, possibly a change small enough that someone unfamiliar with the personal touch involved in petrakinetic manipulation wouldn’t notice. They were alive.

“Yeah, but at the end of the day we’re the ones still standing. No deal.”

“I see,” said The Soul Survivor. “To clarify your situation: since you won’t surrender, I will envelope one of your friends’ asteroids with the tractor beam, and launch it at the other one again. This will continue until there asteroids no longer remain. The moment you begin interfering, a moment we both know will arrive, you will be included in this constant barrage of asteroids. You and your two allies will be dead, your oft-celebrated asteroids will be unidentifiable rubble, and I will continue to operate without a scratch.”

“We know what to expect now,” said Carmen. “You can only hit one of us at a time, and when we start getting a good fix on your ship we’ll have a better shot at keeping out of your tractor beam’s sights. It won’t take long to end you.”

“Do you have long?” said the Soul Survivor. “Can any of you be lucky enough to survive two more collisions like that? One more?”

“I’m fine risking it.”

“Are you fine risking them? Last chance to avoid the carnage, Carmen Shift. You can save their lives, or end them.”

Carmen turned to look at the other two asteroids. She had no idea what was happening on them right now, other than the fact that they were probably both alive. They might even be in a coma and nearing a total loss of atmosphere. Or they could be ready to fight. And it was a fight they could win, in that case. But only in that case.

The green and purple field again vanished from her sky, instantly shifting to cover Xorn’Tal’s asteroid. The tractor beam swung like a pendulum, and pulled the massive rock along with it, nearing the point of its curve where it would be easiest to fling it at Vince’s ship.

“Wait!” shouted Carmen. “Wait, don’t… do that. I’ll surrender.”

“Excellent. Prepare to board the vessel when it reappears. I’m happy to hear that the three of you have chosen to live.”

“Sure,” said Carmen, taking her headset off and looking up into the sky to keep an eye out for the vessel. “And we’ll live long enough to make you regret it.”

Episode 120: Trial by Verdict

Zack twirled his Purcellian Striker pistols and scanned the trees around him. He’d waited for more than two hours, and was hoping that he wouldn’t have to wait until the end of the six he’d been given by the Suzerain.

“Should’ve asked Chala for some ice water,” he said.

A distant squawking creature made itself known in the distance.

“I wonder if Chala even has ice on this planet,” he said.

“Good question,” said a voice from above. Zack tensed and started to look up, but not before Nectra dropped onto him from above, slamming into his back and pinning him to the leaf-covered, peaty soil. She twirled her staff triumphantly, and brought it down on top of one of Zack’s arms to keep it from moving the pistol, and one of her clawed feet pinned the other arm. Zack heard a familiar buzz of energy and realized that her staff was likely energized from its contact with him, meaning it had again turned into the Virellium Scythe.

He started to twist his head to look up at the shangmere, but Nectra kicked off his hat and held down his head with her other foot.

“Hello again, Zack,” she said. “You ran off from the cave. It’s a shame you delayed my progress.”

“Nectra, how are you even planning on getting off this world?” Zack asked. “If you kill me, how’ll you get back to Veskid to prove your theory?”

“My theory about Virellium trackers? Well, obviously, we’ll need to take whoever was coming to pick you up. You worked so hard to get to Mandrake, Zack, and a smart guy like you will have a plan to get off again. You probably arranged for a ride. It’s an educated guess, but I feel good about it.”

“Here’s another educated guess for you, then,” said Zack. “You’ve been in contact with The Phantom Matador. What’d you do, fly him all the way down to the planet from Carmen’s asteroid? That must’ve been quite the fall.”

“Oh, I was right about you being smart… yes, he’s been helping me to find you. With my tracker, he’s very capable of figuring out not just where you are but where you’ll be by observing how the signal changes. I can’t condone villainy, of course, but he’d have a huge future as a criminal mastermind if he applied himself.”

“He’s already a criminal,” said Zack. “He’s a stalker and a trespasser, and he also assaulted me with a boulder once. I can see how that last one might not count against him, though, since it seems like the universe has agreed that I’m a fair target.”

“I’m sorry about that,” said Nectra. “But it gets us back on track. Now, I don’t want to go to the trouble of smuggling you off this planet and back to Veskid while you’re dead, but you’ve got a habit of getting away while alive. So… Zack, do I kill you now? How would the DMA do that?”

“I didn’t work with the assassins,” said Zack. “I did the honest jobs. But yes, the assassins would probably kill me now.”

“Oh,” said Nectra, her excited tone suddenly slowing and losing its bright edge. “I see. Yes… well then. I guess this is goodbye, Zack? Zack, I’m… this is embarrassing. I know I just met you yesterday, but I’m really going to miss you.”

“Well, there’s a way other than killing me right now,” said Zack.

“Good!” said Nectra. “I mean… what?”

“I need to know some things first. When the Phantom Matador was using your tracking device, or helping you to use it, or whatever, did he kill anyone?”

Zack listened to Nectra’s breathing. It slowed. The sounds of jungle insects and beasts filled the air.

“I think so,” she said. “I think he used that energy sword of his. He wouldn’t say it directly, but I saw the bodies whenever I left. All he said was that they ‘saw him’ and he ‘needed to get away.’ They might have killed him, Zack.”

“I get that,” said Zack. “And they might’ve. They’re not unreasonable, though. Look, Nectra, I need your help in catching The Phantom Matador.”

“What? But he’s helping me.”

“Right, but he’s killed Sthenites. Nectra, he’s a murderer. Beneath that dark, mysterious persona, The Phantom Matador is a parasite on any society he’s in. I mean, in less than twenty-four hours he became this region’s most notorious murderer, and that was almost pinned on me.”

Zack felt the claws at the back of his neck loosen and lift. He looked over his shoulder and saw Nectra, looking confused.

“He said I should kill you here. He said you’d cause trouble for us if I saved killing you for later.”

“I would,” said Zack. “He’s right about that. But that’s not really the issue, is it? You shouldn’t kill me at all, Nectra. And the Matador’s gotta face justice from the Sthenites. One other issue: these bushes are filled with sthenite warriors. They’re mostly here to make sure I don’t escape… they didn’t believe my story about a winged lady swooping in to hunt me down… but they’re also here for you. Kill me, and they’ll attack you.”

“Zack? You set a trap for me?”

“No, no I set a safety net for myself. The flip side is this: I’m still in the middle of a weird trial thing. Help us catch The Phantom Matador, and I’ll agree to combat against you overseen by the Suzerain of the Sthenites, a combat that the Suzerain declared to be a sufficient conclusion to my trial if you turned out to exist. You win that combat, I’ll be your prisoner. I win, you leave me alone.”

“And if I try to abduct you or kill you now, I lose either way,” said Nectra, sounding crestfallen.

“Well… don’t look at it like that,” said Zack. “I’m the one in a trap here. You could always just fly away. So… help us find The Matador?”

Nectra closed her eyes and took some deep breaths. Soon she opened them again and nodded.

“Sure,” she said. “Let’s find that Phantom.”

Episode 119: Mine and Mire

“Heed my words, Vox Cul-Dar. The time has come for you to wake.”

Vox’s bulbous eyes snapped open.

“I rise a new person, prepared for a new day, prepared for my future,” he said, automatically reciting the words that had been part of the first few moments of cognitive thought of every waking since he had first joined the monastery as a child. He scanned the compartment, a room with a low ceiling and long shadows cast from broken windows. He saw little dust, but dirt and leaves littered the compartment. When he recognized the molded plastic in the center of the room as the frame for a chair, the purpose of the chamber came to his mind.

“How did I get in a space ship?” he said. “And… Rendelac, what’s become of Fletch?”

“Fletch left you here after I requested that she not severely wound you to hinder your further progress. You have been unconscious for nearly seven hours. Vox Cul-Dar, I-”

“Seven hours… she’s got an incredible head start, then. We’ll have to hurry.”

“I would ask you, not for the first time, to refrain from this task, Vox Cul-Dar. She left you here when I gave my word to ask you to stop. She represents a more active danger than the already problematic environment of this world.”

“I appreciate your concern, Rendelac, but-”

“Forgive my interruption, but I believe we are sinking.”

Vox looked around the shuttle interior. He located Rendelac sitting on the top of some of his other possessions in the ship’s chair. He picked up the computer and twirled his pack onto his back.

“Sinking?”

“I was trying to rouse you from your slumber for two hours. The problem is now quite dire. Our elevation is gradually decreasing, and I fear that the remains of this vessel are submerging into the swamp.”

“You should have mentioned this sooner,” said Vox, jumping to one of the broken windows. The twisted trees and choked vegetation beyond sat in a stagnant sea of green. The incredible humidity and stench of decay was almost comfortable to Vox, and the gentle curve of the ship’s hull provided ample purchase for him to scramble up and out.

“I apologize,” said Rendelac. “You had other questions, and my programming dictated that I answer them, to a point.”

“How fortunate I am that the original Rendelac coded you to eventually concede the all-important etiquette for quick responses to danger.”

“The vessel would likely not have become truly dangerous for another twenty minutes.”

“Oh, I see. Why hurry at all then?”

“The swampy terrain beyond the vessel might have altered by our sinking, and as such-”

“That was sarcasm, Rendelac.”

“A sarcastic tongue is an exercise for a mind in disarray.”

“I am aware of the teachings,” said Vox. He stood upon the ship and scanned the horizon. He saw a tree-covered shoreline a mere dozen feet away, and some other fallen debris created a workable path back to the jungle for one of his skills. He carefully slid down the sloping edge of the vessel.

“Did Fletch happen to say why she barged through the jungles until she found a swamp just for dispatching me?”

“She was apparently very knowledgeable of the region. She knew this swamp would be here, and that it was the assumed final resting place of a vessel that had crashed when an adventurous entrepreneur crash-landed after an attempt to begin a logging and mining operation. He was desperate to leave after the locals realized the extent to which his presence would disrupt their environment, but did not begin flying away until after the Sthenites had time to sabotage his ship.”

“Sthenites,” said Vox, carefully hopping from the ship to a log wedged between the vessel and a small pile of rocks and silt. “I should have researched this world more, just as it appears that Fletch has… Sthenites are the creatures that resemble Terran serpents, but with feathers?”

“Yes,” said Rendelac. “You are aware of them?”

“The Rythnian Boutique had two as founding members,” said Vox. “After being abducted from their own world, they escaped on Veskid but found that they could do well for themselves. The poisons on Mandrake are second to none, and with the Desperate Measures Agency’s headquarters so near there was a high demand for their specialized knowledge.”

“A curious coincidence,” said Rendelac.

“A beneficial one,” said Vox, hopping to the rock pile and carefully gaging the leap to what looked like a relatively benign clump of a sargasso-like weed. “Their knowledge allowed me to find the Cerulean Bloom after we landed here.”

He landed on the clump of weeds and was at first relieved to find that the clump was thick and strong enough to support his weight, but some of the vines whipped around his leg.

“Ugh… alien plant life,” he said. He reached down and started untwisting the vine.

“The manner of that twist did not appear to be the result of locomotion on the plant’s part,” said Rendelac. “It almost appeared mechanical. Strange, considering that the plant appears capable of moving on its own, albeit in a different way.”

“A fluke of circumstance, then.”

A strange, high-pitched beep filled the air.

“Rendelac, was that you?”

“Negative. The noise issued from the vegetation currently entwined around your leg.”

Another beep sounded. Vox moved aside the vegetative clumps and took a sharp intake of breath at the appearance of a timer counting down seconds, affixed within the plant.

“Rendelac, what is-”

“Danger!” said Rendelac. “Possibility of an explosive device high!”

Vox stopped talking and started unfurling the vine. Obviously a trap left by Fletch to eliminate him from a distance if the murk didn’t finish him off sooner. With only a moment, he peeled the vine from his leg, jumped, and cursed as the vine reflexively twisted around his arm, pulling the explosive clump of vegetation along with him just a moment before it detonated.

Episode 118: Reverb

The Soul Survivor’s proclamation rang through Carmen’s headset. The remains of the Dyson vessel were starting to drift harmlessly through space, and the other ship was twisting through space to have a more direct view of the three racers. Standing on top of her asteroid, with the green clouds and oceans of Mandrake dominating most of her horizon, there was more violet in the explosion than she expected and the clash of colors was almost disorienting.

“We’re not just gonna take that, are we?” asked Vince, his voice coming through her channel.

“What?”

“They were just about to give us everything you wanted, and then someone claiming to be ‘The Soul Survivor’ just swoops in and blows ‘em out of the sky? I mean, I’m not exactly thrilled with the idea of tangoing with The Soul Survivor… if it’s actually him… but I’m not just gonna surrender.”

“Surrender: never,” said Xorn’Tal.

“I like your thinking,” said Carmen.

“Task: doable?”

“He’s only got one ship,” said Carmen. “One ship that’s the same model as the six we aced before the big one came through to make the deal. It’s not just doable, it’s already done.”

“Might I interject?” came the sonorous voice of the Soul Survivor.

Carmen inhaled and she almost thought she felt the chill of the void just beyond her atmosphere.

“Channel: private,” said Xorn’Tal. “Access: secure.”

“Please,” said The Soul Survivor. “Intelligent schoolchildren hack channels more secure than this for a lark. I am no child, and it’s a minor annoyance for a mind like mine. I’m aware of, and capable of translating, all transmissions using standard technologies. Encryption would need to mimic the background radiation of the universe to pass my notice, and there are more problems with that than a mind like yours could guess. Be sure that I was listening to your conversation even before you were aware of me. Feel free to attack with all of your petrakinetic skill, but know that I have accounted for every eventuality! There is no way that you could defeat me.”

Silence rang over the headset. Carmen looked at Vince’s sleek, almost aerodynamic asteroid, and Xorn’Tal’s vine-covered rock before looking back at The Soul Survivor’s vessel. Total silence finally fell, and Carmen realized that there had been a substance to the space between the silence now and when he finished speaking seconds earlier. He was adding reverb to his channel.

“So, we’re just supposed to believe you?” said Carmen.

“Excuse me?” said The Soul Survivor. Carmen listened again; there was definitely a faint reverberation. If what they said about The Soul Survivor was true, his voice could sound like whatever he wanted. Making his voice generic enough as to be familiar but also echo so faintly that you almost didn’t notice was an intentional choice on his part.

“Why should I believe an interplanetary criminal? You’re a notorious liar. Saying that there’s no hope sounds like a trick.”

“I wouldn’t lie about this, cretin,” said the voice of The Soul Survivor.

“I think this floating scrap-heap just insulted me,” said Carmen.

“I think you’re right,” said Vince.

“What do you say we give him a chance to survive a crash landing on Mandrake?”

“You fools don’t know what you’re in for,” said The Soul Survivor.

“Buddy, neither do you,” said Carmen.

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack scrolled through the time line on the holographic screen, taking note of all of the dates and situations that had been marked in green. Azar sat in the most comfortable chair in his suite and watched Zack manipulating the files while Harold Zamona gingerly attempted to peel an orange without turning it into a pulpy goo. His strength-sapping gauntlets were at full power, but he wasn’t going to take any chances.

“I think we’ve hit most of the big ones,” said Zack. “We need to do more work, but we’re all exhausted. Let’s take the night off and finish in the morning.”

“Finally,” said Zamona. “No offense, Gamma, but I’ve had surgeries more fun than this.”

“Hey, if my work was fun I couldn’t make a living doing it. The movies always skip to the end of the paper trail, but here in the real world we’ve gotta walk over the whole thing. The good news is we got a lot of the paperwork taken care of today, and tomorrow we should be able to knock out the rest and relax before lunchtime.”

“Thank you, Zachary,” said Azar. “I look forward to being done with this once and for all.”

“Me too,” said Zack. “Understand, not all of this will be admissible. The large scale energy projects and focal-point teleportation aspects alone would still be classified since some of that work was through government projects.”

“Of course,” said Azar. “I’ll have to be quiet on my Tidal Lock technologies work until well after I’ve died of old age, if I live that long.”

“We should all be so lucky,” said Zamona, finally tearing a large fragment of peel off of the orange.

“Need any help with that?” asked Zack.

“No, I’ve got it. Azar was able to improve the coordination servos. I still need to be careful, but I want to get through this.”

“Whoever designed his most recent pair of gauntlets did a fine job, but they were clearly working with either time restraints or budget restraints,” said Azar. “Fortunately, neither is a concern for me anymore. If you two will excuse me, I’d like to go to the dining hall and place my order.”

Zack and Zamona nodded, and Azar stood, adjusted his tie in a mirror by the suite’s entrance, and left through the sliding door. Zack flipped the files closed and ejected the data crystal from Azar’s display table.

“I think we’ve found all the obvious attempts on his life that we’ll need,” said Zack. “Even if they weren’t intentional, the gross misconduct alone should make BristleCorp want to write him off as a loss before moving on.”

“So, when do you let us know the real plan?”

Zack looked at Azar who triumphantly finished removing the final segment of peel from his orange. He held it up to Zack, who shook his head.

“I had a big lunch. What real plan?”

“How’re you getting Azar out of this?”

“Did you not notice the last six hours we spent finding all the so-called accidents where BristleCorp tried finishing off the employees who were living too long?”

“No, I noticed it. I also think you think that even if we get an open and shut case that it won’t mean anything.”

“Well, it’ll be tough, but I think we can do it.”

“You really think BristleCorp’ll just roll over like that? I don’t. I’ve dealt with big companies before, and ones a lot smaller than BristleCorp can keep on going after something like this. You need something bigger to take ‘em on. A government, or another, bigger company.”

“That’s what we’re doing,” said Zack. “We’re getting the government to step in.”

“It won’t finish ‘em off. We need to chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out before they can do it to us.”

“We don’t need to go that far,” said Zack. “We wouldn’t have the resources even if we did. We’re trying to make them not want to, uh… chew us up by being unappetizing, or by being too much work to catch. If you take more calories to eat than the predator gets for eating you, it’ll learn to stop hunting you.”

“Yeah, that’d work if this was all being done sensibly. But we’ve also talked about how BristleCorp’s acting for spite here. Couldn’t say why, but I think what it means is clear: our offensive won’t offend nearly enough.”

“What’ve you got in mind?” said Zack.

“Nothing yet. That’s why I asked what you had in mind. Listen, I know you don’t trust me, and that’s fine. I’m new to this outfit. But I like Azar. He’s one of maybe four good, honest people that I’ve met in my life. And I want him to win. This thing you’re planning… this counter lawsuit, I don’t think he’ll win. It won’t get the job done.”

“Well, as soon as you get a better plan, let me know. Listen, I’m gonna hit the hay. I need to get up early so that we can finish up the work tomorrow. Take care.”

Zack left through the same door that Azar had used, leaving Zamona alone in the suite. He walked to the display table and activated it. The files that Zack carried were safe on the data crystal, but Zamona could still look up information on a few pertinent details.

“No offense, Zack, but I think Azar needs to be helped by a champ.”

Azar peeled a segment of the orange away from the fruit and popped it into his mouth while the data started to fill the space above the table.

Episode 117: Morcalan Morse

ANY WORD FROM THE CAPTAIN

Captain Ortega tapped the phrases into the pipe behind the wall panel he’d managed to remove. He was growing more convinced that all of Dyson’s most visible technology was refurbished from other common sources, but less convinced that it was a slapdash job. The pipe had been there as he’d expected, but the panel had been reinforced. Astroguard had written manuals on how to escape from common cell structure designs like this, but the redesign would have been enough to thwart most who only had knowledge from the manual to work with.

As one of the most frequent consultants on the writing of such manuals, however, Ortega was ahead of the curve in the latest trends in escape artistry. He’d almost electrocuted himself on the first three workarounds he attempted, but the fourth allowed the panel to pop out of the wall without, he hoped, tripping any sensors.

NO

The terse reply from the other end was coming either from Ensign Trell, or someone who was very creatively imitating her without any difficulty. Ortega had tapped instructions on the bar that would have been audible to anyone in a mostly silent room, and he’d used some of the most common universal code patterns, ones derived from the ancient Morse Code patterns from Earth’s military and naval history. Trell had responded after he’d been repeating the instructions for twelve minutes, using the nearly-compatible Morcalan variation on the pattern. Ortega reached for the pipe and tapped again.

JUST RETURNED FROM ANOTHER DOCTOR DEBRIEFING

He thought about the message and resisted the urge to drum his fingers on the pipe. He decided to wait rather than add anything, as early attempts to incorporate STOP or punctuation into the messages using their two different codes had caused issues. Similar issues resulted when he tried to remember how to use Morcalan Morse, and Trell was either unwilling to switch from the Morcalan standard or had never been trained in the more commonly accepted ones, he wasn’t clear on that.

CAPTAIN GONE FOR TEN MINUTES

Ortega nodded and tapped his reply.

ANOTHER ESCAPE ATTEMPT

He resisted the urge to add a regular question mark, even though he was certain that Trell would be able to interpret it.

NO SHE HAD JUST RETURNED FROM ELSEWHERE FOR THAT AND WAS PUT IN THE CELL OPPOSITE FROM MINE BUT NOW SHE IS GONE AGAIN I DONT NOT KNOW WHY

Ortega looked over his shoulder. He was certain that he had a camera pointed at him even if he couldn’t see it, but the empty cells on the other side of the hall were the only things he could see. He reached for the pipe to tap again.

SHE MIGHT HAVE GONE TO ANOTHER DEBRIEFING LIKE MINE TO HELP EXPLAIN THE DOCTOR

WHICH DOCTOR

DOCTOR SILAS ROGERS

SOUL SURVIVOR IS EASIER TO TAP

Ortega smirked. He disagreed, but he was using a slightly different system. Trell was likely just taunting him to kill time.

SOUL SURVIVOR IS NOT AN IMMEDIATE CONCERN I CAN TALK YOU THROUGH ESCAPE IF YOUR CELL IS BUILT LIKE MINE BUT THE SHIP IS DIFFERENT THAN THE ONES IVE PLANNED FOR AND AN ESSENTIAL PART INVOLVES LOSING OUR TAPPING ABILITY

UNDERSTOOD

ASSUMING ALARMS DONT GO OFF WE CAN MEET AT WHAT I HOPE WILL BE A MOSTLY UNUSED CORRIDOR JUNCTION BUT IF ALARMS START WE WONT HAVE THE OPTION

He paused. After a minute, Trell started tapping again.

AFTER ESCAPE WE NEED TO FIND THE CAPTAIN AND SABOTAGE THIS SHIP AND HOPEFULLY DESTROY OTHERS, IN WHICHEVER ORDER IS MOST REASONABLE

Ortega frowned. He didn’t like the idea of destroying an entire ship if people were on board, but Trell could be reasoned with on the fly. Calen probably couldn’t, however, plus the Dyson forces had clearly entered war-time mode, and as such war protocols were on the table. Potentially mind-controlled conscripts weren’t necessarily fair war-time targets, though. With all those considerations on the table, it was also true that his chances of escape would improve with Trell’s assistance. He reached for the bar and tapped it again.

AGREED