Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Azureback Encounter

“We will miss you, Sky-Carrion, but wish you well tonight as you depart,” said Weshar, repeating the words that the Chief Healer could not, by tradition, speak to people from other worlds. The Chief Healer nodded her head approvingly as Weshar intoned the rehearsed words. Vox Cul-Dar stood, bandaged and bruised but able, with Rendelac in the pack that he wore on his back. His robes had been damaged in the explosion that led to his designation as Sky-Carrion, but he had been able to clean them in exchange for his own information, information from the Rhythnian Boutique’s catalog that he was, in effect, trading back to the tribe that had culturally led to the boutique’s founding. Much of his knowledge came from offworld Sthenites taking advantage of the luxuries of Veskid’s civilization, though, so he wasn’t sure how much would be useful in the long term.

Rendelac chimed and translated Weshar’s words just as Weshar spoke the Chief Healer’s. Vox leaned against a walking stick (easily found from the drier fire wood that the Sthenites collected) and sipped more of the tea that he had come to enjoy. He nodded.

“Tell them that I am grateful for their hospitality, but that I must now leave. There is a great beast of earth and fire even now approaching them, and I would speak to it. It means them no harm, but goodness knows it may mean harm to me.”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “I caution against speaking falsehoods.”

“This is not a falsehood, Rendelac. It is a premonition. My destiny awaits us.”

Rendelac buzzed and spoke to the Azurebacks who had gathered to see his departure. The Chief Healer nodded and gestured to their city’s gates, giving him free passage to leave. The gates were situated next to the river that flowed through the town, a river that was not impeded by the city’s wall by virtue of the gates locked into place, gates that allowed the water to flow through while impeding the progress of potential invaders.

Vox approached the gate and a massive, red and blue-scaled Sthenite pushed the door open for him. A surprised susurrus of hisses and trills issued from the crowd as a mist, thick and roiling, poured through the door. Other Sthenites responded in more reasonable hisses to the worried crowd as Vox stepped into the ankle-high cloud.

“This is unseasonable,” said rendelac. “Fog and mist only emerge from their river at other times of the year, and then it manages to creep up from the portion of the river within the city as well. Reportedly some of the guards on the wall noted the unusual cloud bank that crept up in the late afternoon, and have been puzzled as to why it stopped right at the wall this evening.”

“Thank you for the information,” said Vox, turning to wave at the Sthenites as the door closed again, hurriedly pushed by the same Sthenite who opened it. “It does not change what I know of what is happening, but it does alter the context for how the Sthenites observe it.”

“Please share what you know of the scenario, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “You have been curiously prescient.”

“All will be made clear, once it gets foggier,” said Vox, stepping closer to the river bank where the mist was thicker. “Or perhaps steamier… this fog is warm and humid, not cold and clammy as I expected. It makes sense, though.”

“Does it?”

“To me, at least,” said Vox. “And, I presume, to our associate. Reveal yourself, intruder! You know who I am, and I know who you are, so this continued attempt at clumsy hiding helps neither of us, Igneous.”

Silence crept over the waters until, with a burbling splash, a dull-orange glow rose from the water, still obscured by the thick steam. The figure took steps to the shoreline until Igneous became visible, a towering pillar of orange and red interspersed with blackened, charred husks.

“How did you know it was me?” said Igneous, increasing the heat around Vox. Vox reflexively tried waving the hand with his wooden tea cup in the air to clear the extra humidity.

“The local culture is well worth investigating, Igneous. I take it that you’ve arrived to seek Zack Gamma?”

“You might say that,” said Igneous.

“You wouldn’t be trying to help him, would you?”

“If I was, it would be no business of yours,” said Igneous. “But I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

“You’ve spent too long among the humans to use such an idiom,” said Vox. “Though from the look of you, frying things may soon be your best career option.”

“That’s the main reason I’m here,” said Igneous. “Fletch is here.”

“Yes, I know,” said Vox. “We met… what does that have to do with anything?”

“She… threatened me. She’s carrying a dose of Teles.”

“Is she, now? That surprises me. I never would have taken her for a user.”

“She isn’t. I intended to use half of it.”

“Only half? But… last I checked, even a full dose of Teles would have little to no effect on a Pyrhian without… you mean pre-mixing, though, don’t you?”

“The frozen half of the Teles. It might delay my metamorphosis.”

“I see,” said Vox. “You know, most would just age with dignity rather than turning to such methods.”

“I’ve got business to finish before it happens,” said Igneous. “And I think I’ll need the time the Teles can buy to do that. She stole it from me, threatened me with the fiery half, and told me to stay out of her way, or help her to catch Zack if asked. I want the Teles back.”

“Naturally. As it so happens, I want her to stop getting in my way while hunting Gamma myself… I’ve an inkling of where we might find her, and an inkling of where we might find Gamma thanks to a gift from the Azurebacks. But why were you approaching their city?”

“I figured someone like Gamma would create enough of a stir to cause a commotion at some trace of civilization. This place was close enough to the landing site that word would’ve spread this far, assuming the Sthenites talk to each other.”

“Sensible. Well then… loathe though I am to splitting a bounty, it’s worse to keep someone like Fletch around. What do you say that we work as partners here? First to eliminating Fletch, and then to securing Gamma?”

Igneous’ mouth twisted into a smile, a motion visible now with her altered face.

“Good plan,” she said. “Wish I’d thought of it.”

Episode 139: Subterfuge

Ensign Trell groggily walked through the corridors of the Dyson vessel, following the footsteps of the aggravatingly chipper Alsafi. She’d worked out from the context that this Wraithstrike soldier not only qualified as an officer in Dyson’s forces, but that she’d also led the assault to take back Pilot Tan’s ship. She heard the boots of the two soldiers behind her, an extra escort that Alsafi continued to ignore as effectively irrelevant while she was around.

They entered a hall that contained holding cells similar to the ones that Trell had been held in earlier. Alsafi examined them like fruits in a grocery store, and eventually settled on one four from the entrance to the hall.

“Step right in, please,” she said, waving Trell toward the entrance. “This cell has all of the accommodations from your previous lodgings, but it should lack the structural flaw that allowed you to escape from it. Sorry for the inconvenience, and enjoy the rest of your stay!”

Alsafi vanished from view and Trell rolled her eyes.

“Move along,” said one of the guards behind her.

Trell took a step forward but heard an energy blast. Eyes widening, she jumped forward and rolled into the cell, moving her manacled hands between her and the commotion. She looked back and gaped at the sight of one of the guards standing over the other guard, a discharged blaster in her hand. As the smell of ionized air drifted toward Trell, the treacherous guard turned to face her and smiled.

“Captain?”

“The one and only, Ensign,” said Captain Calen, spinning and holstering her weapon. “At least since my duel with Captain Anthonial Calen. Help me with the body.”

Calen tapped a keypad on her uniform’s wrist, and Trell’s manacles fell to the floor with a clang. Calen grabbed the legs of the unconscious guard and, after overcoming her shock, Trell grabbed the hands and the two easily pulled the guard into the cell.

“Why are we leaving him alive, Captain?” asked Trell. “He’s a security risk this way.”

“He has a usefulness that’s earned him some extra time. If this cell’s monitoring vital signs and it detects an absence of healthy humanity then they’ll know you aren’t in it. If we keep this guard in here, he may yet fool such insufficient security measures.”

“I understand. How did you get here? I thought you were thrown into a secluded confinement after your previous escape attempt.”

“The volunteer that I found to serve out my sentence is, in actuality, another guard who had the misfortune of styling hair as I do. Her uniform fit me well enough, and mine hers. By the time she comes to, I expect she’ll be three hours into an eight hour interval without being checked. Her uniform’s allowed me to move about without suspicion. Trell, this military lacks any semblance of security or cohesion. It’s like an impressionist painting of what an army is like, but it fails to capture the soul of what an army is.”

“There were no security codes required?” asked Trell.

“There were.”

“Then how-”

Calen held up a tiny, concave piece of clear plastic. It glowed and periodically twinkled with light and had a red and brown smudge.

“Is that one of the cybernetic lenses?”

“Let’s just say that my incarceration understudy will need to invest in an eye patch. Though she might not’ve had time for investing anything if your plan had worked. That was some clever thinking, Trell.”

“Thank you, Captain. I… didn’t like it. I knew it would destroy you as well.”

Calen frowned and narrowed her eyes.

“Let’s get two things straight, Trell. You did what you thought was best for our military aims, and while I might have suggested a different course of action, nothing you did came from a heart of malice or mutiny. You did well there. More importantly, you’re a fool to think the destruction of a ship like this would be enough to stop me from living to wreak my vengeance in the name of Morcala. Now… let’s get you a uniform.”

Episode 138: Quicksand

Zack Gamma slowly turned his head, feeling the shifting of the sand under and around him. The dense foliage of the jungle surrounding the pit of quicksand gave ample hiding places for The Phantom Matador, and coupled with the psychic ventriloquism in play there was no way to tell where the Matador had gone, or if he had even been anywhere nearby when the rock caused Zack to jump into danger.

Irksome though it was, Zack found his mind racing over exactly what the Soul Survivor predicted. If he relaxed, wouldn’t he float on top of the sand? Or was that just a myth? No, it couldn’t be a myth. Struggling was what made you sink faster, so being calm was the way to go. He’d read reports of dust and sand on some worlds that could make people submerge faster than water, but this quicksand was acting more like the quicksand and mud pits of deserts and jungles more commonly seen across known space. It was probably fed by an underground spring, or from some other water source that was present in the jungle.

It was even possible that if he sank low enough, his feet would touch the bottom and he could wade out. He didn’t want to risk that, though; a little more than a foot of sinking and is nose would be below sand level.

“Anyone out there?” he yelled. “Matty? Mat-Mat? Phantom Matador? …if you don’t like being called Mat, you should give me a name that doesn’t sound so pretentious! …Hello? Anyone?”

“Here! I’m here. Sorry, should I… should I come out now?”

“Nectra? Yeah, yeah, come out.”

The shangmere dropped from the canopy and landed at the edge of the pool, her wings opening at the end of the drop to catch just enough air to allow her stop to be painless. She twirled her staff and held it out for Zack to grab.

“Sorry,” she said. “Sorry, you said you wanted to talk to him yourself, I didn’t know if I should step in if you weren’t ready…”

“No, this is great,” he said. “Perfect timing. I think he’s gone.”

“Can’t you check the tracker?”

Zack looked at his right hand, or rather the sand that obscured his right hand. After a moment’s effort he lifted his hand out of the sand and demonstrated the sand-logged tracker, a motion that caused him to sink a little deeper.

“I might not’ve given it a fair shake, but I assumed it wouldn’t get me very far.”

“Ooh. Yes. You might be right. I’ll take a look at it after we get you out of there. Grab the staff.”

Zack nodded and reached for the proffered staff with his left hand, but Nectra quickly pulled it back.

“Wait! Hang on.”

Zack slowly pulled his hand back while Nectra observed the staff. After a quick perusal she rotated the staff ninety degrees and held the staff out again.

“Okay, now.”

“What’s different now?” he said, reaching his hand out. He touched the base of the staff and an iridescent blade of Virellium force energy emerged from the other end of the staff, cutting up and away from where Nectra thanks to how she was holding it.

“Oh, I see. Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Yeah, I didn’t want to, uh… cut my hand.”

“Right,” said Zack. “So.”

“Sooo…”

“Pull me out?”

“Right!” she said, slowly pulling the staff. Zack felt the quicksand flow around him as Nectra pulled the staff closer and, in just moments, his foot brushed the base of the pit at the edge. He reached for the solid ground, pulled himself out, and crawled onto the comparatively firmer soil, feeling itchy and sandy and damp. He took a few deep breaths, turned over, and looked at the trees overhead. His vision was soon blocked by Nectra, moving into his eyesight, and holding up a finger.

“Could I, uh… take a look at the tracker?”

“Right,” said Zack, handing it to her. “Sorry, forgot about that.”

“No problem,” she said, taking it and dusting off the sand. “It’s probably fine, but I should make sure. It seemed to work pretty well!”

“Yeah,” said Zack. “I couldn’t pin him down, but I could keep him close. If he hadn’t got the drop on me with that boulder, I wouldn’t have fallen into the sand.”

“Hmm… you’re okay, right?”

“Apart from the jungle deathtrap I just avoided?”

“The Phantom Matador said that you were slower… and I’ve heard you cough since you started tracking him, it doesn’t sound good, I think.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just been a little woozy the last day or two. Ol’ Matty’s tryin’ to get in my head. Plus he’s crazy.”

“Heh, yeah, he’s crazy,” said Nectra. “He said a lot of things. Lots of crazy, crazy things.”

She popped open the back of the tracker and started looking over the inner workings of the device while she talked.

“Yeah,” said Zack. “I think he’s feeling desperate. He’s used to being on the run, but he’s not used to it in this kind of place, I think.”

“Right,” said Nectra. “So, he’s getting desperate and he’s a good talker, so he’s saying anything he can think of to stall us.”

“Sure,” said Zack. “Yeah, that’s it.”

“I think we can really just ignore anything he’s saying today, honestly. It’s probably not important.”

“Probably,” said Zack. “And keep that in mind going forward. Even if some of what he said back there was true, he was saying it to rattle me. Maybe to rattle you if he thought you were listening. Telling the truth with the wrong context can be pretty damaging, and I think that’s what he’s goin’ for.”

“Right,” said Nectra. “Good point. So what he said was, uh… yeah.”

“He said I’d panic and not be able to remember what was true about quicksand. And he wasn’t exactly wrong. But let’s wrap up fixing that tracker so that I can show him that he wasn’t exactly right.”

Episode 137: The Tharsha Seed

Vince Flashman pounded on the door to the tiny bridge of the fighter craft.

“Let us in!”

“For the last time, no!” said the sonorous voice of The Soul Survivor over the loudspeaker.

“How is it possible for this hallway to be lamer than that break room they called a galley?” moaned Carmen, leaning against the opposite wall and staring out the window into the cold, empty void of space beyond. “I mean, seriously, these ships aren’t expected to have many passengers, why’s the door even locked?”

“Nearly three centuries ago is when such seemingly unnecessary locks became customary,” said The Soul Survivor. “After the Mind-Rays of the Rucivarian Star proved capable of turning reasonable passengers into deadly enemies, the-”

“Shut up,” said Carmen, half-heartedly pounding the window. “No one cares!”

“You can stop looking out the window for any passing rocks, Miss Shift,” said The Soul Survivor. “I have a rough estimate for your radius of effect, adjusted for the significant increase gained if the three of you work together with frankly unrealistic coordination. Know that I’m piloting the craft to keep any dangerously sized rocks a minimum of three times that distance away.”

“When we get in there, I call dibs on his voice box.” Said Carmen.

“Even if you could find a way into my demesne-”

“Stop calling it that!”

“-you would need to destroy not a single voice box, but a minimum of twelve interrelated-”

Carmen jumped from the window and pushed her way passed Xorn’Tal, making enough noise and moving far enough that she couldn’t hear the end of The Soul Survivor’s speech. The last hour of hammering on the door to be let into the bridge had done little more than expose them to an endless tirade of speeches and condescending explanations from The Soul Survivor, who apparently couldn’t tell when it was time to shut up.

“If the idiots in the Stone Station Riders can figure out the rules of yelling at someone, why can’t he?”

“Vent: Air?”

Carmen looked over her shoulder. Xorn’Tal had followed her, his vines and fronds taking up most of the cramped corridor when he used them to move. Carmen shook her head.

“Xorn’Tal, look, I keep telling you: air vents are too small for us to use. Movies only make them big enough to crawl through to make it more convenient to the plot. You might be able to get a couple of vines through one, but I don’t think they’d stretch for enough, unless you’ve got a crazy alien growth spurt coming in the next few minutes.”

Xorn’Tal shook.

“Knowledge: known. Vent: Air? Find?”

Carmen tilted her head.

“Why?”

Xorn’Tal lifted a small… hand? Leaf? Flower?… and it opened/bloomed to reveal a tiny seed, much like an acorn.

“What’s that?”

“Seed: Tharsha-Vine. Growth: Explosive.”

Carmen’s eyes flickered from the seed to the door at the end of the corridor and back.

“Is that one of the seeds that took out a space-port last year?”

“Negative. Thirsha-Vine: disastrous. Thirsha-Vine: kill us all. Tharsha-Vine: tiny. Duct: dented. Mechanics: jammed.”

“You think it can make a gap in a doorway if we can find a way to drop it in just right?”

“No. Duct: search. Other plan: absent. Vent: Air?”

Carmen looked at the seed.

“All right. Let’s see if we can find that vent for you.”

Episode 136: Interview with an Iceberg

“Don’t stare at his gauntlets.”

Captain Ortega looked over his shoulder at Alsafi and the two laser-toting guards behind her. The hallway outside of Harold Zamona’s door was designed with the elegant simplicity of someone who wanted to intimidate. Most who walked the hallway probably didn’t notice the way that the overhead lights acted as simple guiding lights toward the door, and that the lines of the floor created a similar visual effect. The converging lines on both sides would create a subconscious feeling that the already vaguely-sinister technological hallways were narrowing, getting smaller with every step. The effect was reinforced by the door itself, a large blast door that would have looked more appropriate as an airlock or a hangar gateway, especially when compared to the relatively tame doors that had been present so far in the hallway. Suddenly appearing before a massive door gave the sense that the approacher was getting smaller, even while the hallway was seemingly getting cramped, all without anything changing. Ortega had seen it many times before, and wondered if the Herald had done it on purpose.

“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked. “Does he have disproportionate retribution when people stare at the gauntlets?”

“Oh, no,” said Alsafi. “It’s just rude. Plus I think he’s sensitive about them, between you and me and our two friends here. They can be startling the first time you see them in person.”

The two guards nodded in general agreement.

“Thanks for the heads up, then,” said Ortega.

“No problem!” said Alsafi, tapping a code into the panel by the door, but standing so that Ortega wouldn’t be able to see it. The massive door hissed, clunked, and much of its exterior structure rotated clockwise. The door parted in the middle and the two segments of the door opened into the hallway. Alsafi gently clapped Ortega on the back.

“Have fun in there!” she said, before vanishing from sight. Ortega looked over his shoulder at the two guards.

“Do you have any idea how much it costs every time she does that?”

The two guards shook their heads and one meaningfully pointed her weapon at Captain Ortega. Ortega nodded, turned toward the door, and stepped into the dimly lit hall beyond. Windows on the left side of the hallway provided a quick view of stars, but Ortega wasn’t familiar enough with the Veskid system to use them as a guide to know where he was. The hall ended at another door which slid open as he neared.

The room was arranged like a comfortable conference room. A small table, suitable for a small crowd of people, waited in the center of the room, but only a single chair waited for him on his side. Immediately opposite was Harold Zamona, sitting and smiling patiently.

Harold waved Ortega closer, and Ortega was suddenly struck with just how large this person was. He’d seen Zamona over video feeds and screens before and knew that he would be big and muscular, but the person in front of him was positively giant. It was hard to tell while he sat, but the man must have been at least eight feet tall, if not nine. The arm that was cheerfully waving him to the table was massive, and reminded Ortega of the limbs of certain brutish aliens he’d seen, usually in the bottom of death traps that he was forced to endure. Each arm ended at an enormous gauntlet, one that was thick enough to make his hand seem a third larger than Ortega would guess at based on the size of the arms.

Ortega remembered Alsafi’s words, recovered from his shock, and approached the table to sit.

“Thank you,” said Zamona.

“For showing up here?”

“For saving my life, and the life of everyone on this ship.”

“I didn’t exactly do it alone.”

“No, but you brought the problem to our attention. A smart person would’ve gotten out of here with the chance you had at escaping.”

“Only if escape was the goal the smart person was trying to achieve. I wouldn’t say that I was smart, but I couldn’t let everyone on this ship die. Most of them are under mental manipulation.”

“Not as many as you think.”

“One is too many,” said Ortega. “Even just an emotional push to get someone to do something they want to do is criminal. Punishable by all recognized systems within the Angelor Republic. Thinking otherwise is barbaric.”

“We’ll see if the Angelor Republic agrees with you after it’s part of the Dyson Empire. Our triumph isn’t the result of barbarism, it comes from our Emperor’s technological supremacy.”

“Barbarians are always the first adopters of new technology,” said Ortega. “It’s why they have such an impressive track record. Your empire is still just a fleet of space barbarians committing well-organized acts of piracy and guerrilla warfare.”

Zamona narrowed his eyes and stopped smiling. He steepled his fingers, an action that made his arms take up most of the space on his side of the table.

“I can see we’re done playing nice, then. You should’ve died by now. I killed you twice.”

“No you didn’t.”

“I thought I did. I shot that ship with you and The Soul Survivor, and later I received a transmission from a downed ship in our empire that collected your face and voice. Later we capture you and throw you into a cell. Now, we can analyze the cell and work out how you escaped, and we can also just go over Tan’s logs to see how you got out of his ship’s self destruct sequence. I still don’t know how you and The Soul Survivor escaped from that first meeting, though.”

“Have you found him yet, by the way?”

“Yeah,” said Zamona. “He destroyed a few other ships. Tan’s vessel has been outfitted with some sort of stealth technology. Is he a barbarian too, then?”

“No,” said Ortega. “Doctor Rogers is a genius. An insane one, but a genius. He doesn’t invent out of necessity, he invents on the fly. I might call him a nomad, though, since he’s always on the move. The Emperor’s technology might be able to out pace him, but I don’t think it could ever out innovate him. How did you wind up working or this Dyson fellow, anyway?”

“That’s a long story, Captain. A long, long story that I’m afraid you don’t have time to hear.”

Much earlier, on another world…

Harold Zamona opened the folder and read the information inside. The burning cascade of flaming crystals in the hotel lobby was visible through the conference room’s window, though the sight was less majestic in the more reserved, business-appropriate chamber. He shook his head and leaned back in the reinforced chair that creaked under his weight.

“Seems harsh.”

“You want him gone? This gets him gone.”

Zamona’s head zipped from the document to glare at the woman of orange-flecked stone who stood before him. The Pyrhian almost took a step back, probably not used to speaking to humans who were taller than she was, especially when they were sitting. She recovered quickly and returned the glare.

“Mister Murk is very interested in helping you out, and he sincerely wants to do it without asking any questions. You want the gumshoe out of the way? This’ll get him out of the way.”

“I don’t want him dead. This vine thing looks nasty.”

“It is,” said the Pyrhian. “But it won’t kill him. Keep reading. The later stages of life aren’t as violent, but they’re just as good at their job. It’s how Mister Murk takes care of all of the people who need to disappear that might be useful later. You wouldn’t believe some of the people he’s got in the Underjungles like that.”

“Such as?”

“Such as has-been wrestlers who ask too many questions.”

Zamona paused and looked up from the document. The Pyrhian was glaring, but he could see fear in her eyes. He smiled.

“You’re good at that.”

“At what?”

“The trash talk. Probably needs to come up a lot in your line of work. What’d you say your name was again?”

“Fiamme.”

“Never head of a Pyrhian with a name like that.”

“My fault for picking a human word for a name, then. Does me no good when no human knows it.”

“Why not change it?”

“Hey, I like my name. Would you change yours?”

Zamona shrugged.

“I’m not legally allowed to go by The Iceberg without permission from the appropriate wrestling franchising associations. Don’t know if you’d call that the same thing, though. Speaking of which…”

Fiamme reached into her case and withdrew a dark orange data crystal. She set it onto the table.

“Mister Murk is very, very grateful to have a wrestler of your caliber. Those gauntlets WILL keep you at near-human strength, yes?”

“Yes,” he said, gingerly picking up the crystal with his gauntleted hand. “For now. If I’m using it regularly in fights, though, we could burn through it before the next upgrade’s ready.”

“We’ll try to schedule you so that you won’t have to fight too regularly. While we hammer out some details with your organization, you’ll have to wear a guise other than Iceberg, of course. But we expect that within a month of your first appearance, you could go back.”

“Don’t know if we should do it that soon,” said Zamona. “The secret wrestler approach can draw crowds, get you more money. A well-timed revelation can bring a bigger crowd.”

“Let us worry about that kind of thing. Our cut on Ravelar’s fights are substantial enough that we make sure that they keep the fans coming back for more.”

“Suit yourself,” said Zamon. “And thanks. One less trench coat to worry about, and I start gettin’ back in the ring. It’s win-win.”

“We feel the same way.”

Episode 135: Falling In

Zack pushed his way through the tree branches and vines, keeping an eye on those places in the vibrant foliage where it seemed likely that someone else had already stepped through them, bending the vegetation out of place. He wasn’t sure what the extent of the Phantom Matador’s powers were, but he was working on the assumption that the Matador couldn’t actually teleport. While not unheard of, such capabilities were well beyond the standard feats of psychic ability. Some suggested that the reason for the rarity was that governments were quick to detect those who were gifted with teleportation and arranged for such people to quietly disappear into various medical experiments or spy training groups, but such people also claimed to have seen things like the Void Pilgrim. Zack, while willing to accept a lot as possible, chose not to believe such theories without actual evidence.

“You’re dedicated. I will concede that much.”

Zack stopped and looked behind him. Was there something in the tree branch? A humanoid figure, obscured by the shadows, was standing overhead. Zack looked at the tracker in his hand, and the direction of the Phantom Matador was ahead of him, not behind.

“Not much else to do,” said Zack. He coughed, and kept following the faint traces of the trail, keeping his eyes on the direction suggested by the tracking device.

“I don’t know what you told Nectra,” said the Phantom Matador, his voice coming from ahead now. “But I don’t approve. If she doesn’t kill you, she returns to a life of imprisonment.”

“I don’t like her tryin’ to bump me off,” said Zack. He wiped his brow and took a long look at the screen of the tracker, just to make sure it was lining up with what he expected.

“I don’t mean to say that you should surrender yourself to her. I am an advocate of escape, after all. But leading her to the mistaken belief that you can offer her another way out of her situation? Your false hope will do more harm than good as she struggles against the faceless corporations and spineless bureaucrats who wield all the power.”

“Did good when I did it before,” Zack said, quietly. He stopped moving forward to catch his breath. The voice sounded like it was coming from overhead and forward. Would this be another trick of psychic ventriloquism, or was the Phantom Matador actually waiting in a tree?

A boulder arced through the underbrush. Zack gasped, stumbled backward, and narrowly avoided the rocky missile as it collided into a tree, sticking into the spongy bark with a dull thud.

“You’re slow,” said the Matador’s voice. “Slower than when we dueled at the hotel.”

“Didn’t you peg me then?” asked Zack, clumsily getting back to his feet.

“I grazed you. And you had two boulders to worry about. Boulders that were moving faster. Either you had a wonderful day then, or you’re having a dark day now.”

“Not as dark as you’re about to have,” said Zack, continuing to follow the trail. He kept his eyes and ears open for more incoming boulders, but it was hard to focus on his surroundings while keeping an eye on the trail and the tracker.

“She’s quite taken with you, you know.”

“Excuse me?” said Zack, grabbing an oddly angled branch that was blocking most of the path and stepping under it.

“Nectra. I believe she’s enamored with you. She hasn’t said so in so many words, but you should hear how she talks about you. It makes your persuasion that you can help her all the more reprehensible, Zack. Tell me, has she ever had a clear chance at ending your life where you were spared only through her hesitation?”

Zack stopped for a moment but shook his head and kept moving.

“She’s not cut out for being an assassin,” said Zack. “That’s not something to be ashamed of.”

“Don’t dodge the evidence, Zack. Like me, she’s a romantic. She’s completely enthralled with humans and human culture. And from what she’s said of you, you’re exactly the kind of tragic figure who fits into melodramatic tales of star-crossed lovers, at least in her eyes. On the run from your previous employers, with a price on your head… and her being sent to murder you as the only way to prove her innocence and gain freedom… you can’t deny the dramatic appeal. You don’t have a disfigured twin who might want to ruin your happiness out of spite, do you?”

“Yeah, but I turned him in for fraud and he’s still got three years on his sentence. Makes visiting the parents awkward, but the bounty was nice.”

“I… can’t tell if you’re serious.”

“Buddy, I think you’re crazy about Nectra. But even if you’re not, it doesn’t really change anything. She’s still a rational… mostly rational scientist. Might be a little loopy from trying to wrap her head around Virellium, but-”

Another rock launched from the brush to his side. Zack jumped back, falling off the trail, and landing in a patch of soil softer than the rest. His feet immediately sank to his ankles and, quickly, to just below his knees. He tried to lift his foot out, but the motion only caused him to sink further. His eyes grew wide as he turned to look at the boulder that landed at his side, seeing it slowly sinking along with him.

“I was right! You’re definitely slower. And not noticing as much from your surroundings as you should. Are you feeling well? I’m sorry, don’t worry about that. I was delighted to find actual quicksand in this jungle. You’re probably struggling to remember everything you’ve heard or read about it, and trying to remember which facts about quicksand are real, and which are just the product of poorly researched adventure movies, and trying to figure out how this alien soil would make it different, if it would make it different at all.”

“Say, buddy, what say you help me out of this?” said Zack, looking around for something he could grab onto to pull himself out of the patch.

“But why would I do that after I spent so long carving away all the spare vines and branches that might have provided a lifeline? All that effort would have been for nothing. And then you’d just try to catch me again.”

“No, no I can… not do that,” said Zack. “I’ll give you a day’s head start. Or… heck, I’d stop trying to catch you entirely, you’ll probably die on this planet anyway.”

“That’s very generous of you, but I think not. Good luck, Zack Gamma. I leave you to your fevered thoughts and your inescapable fate.”

Episode 134: Information, Influence, and Infamy

“This is amazing. It’s only a fraction of what it will be, but it’s amazing. The insight it gives… mustn’t get lost in the moment, though, lest it lead to a migraine.”

Vox took his first sip of the tea. He sat next to a warm fire, and felt the soothing tea roll through him. The apprentice healer, a silver-scaled and blue-feathered Sthenite named Weshar, sat in a coil next to him, nodding knowingly as the village bustled around them. Most ignored them and focused on their work, but a few of the younger ones lingered in curious groups to see the Sky-Carrion and his box that could talk and, more impressively, think.

“What gives insight, Vox Cul-Dar?” asked Rendelac, sitting next to Vox on the log that he had pulled from the pile of firewood to avoid sitting on the ground.

“I knew you would ask that,” said Vox, nodding back to Weshar. “Vox, would you tell our friend how happy I was to learn that I had been found… saved, even… by the Azurebacks.”

Rendelac issued a series of tweets, trills and hisses. Weshar watched the thin, black computer as its eye shifted from green to purple and back again. Rendelac was still not fluent in the Sthenite language, but his understanding was growing. The computer paused mid-hiss, and Weshar watched curiously.

“Theshtreshar,” said Vox. “The word you want is Theshtreshar.”

Rendelac’s eye changed to orange.

“What makes you so certain, Vox Cul-Dar?”

“These are the Azurebacks,” said Vox. “Most of the Sthenites who came to Veskid and created the Rythnian Boutique were Azurebacks, and there was great information about their culture.”

Rendelac’s eye remained orange, but it changed in hue and intensity, becoming darker and softer.

“I had the opportunity to witness much of your research, Vox Cul-Dar.”

“But not all of it.”

“No, but I find it unlikely that you found a comprehensive vocabulary.”

“Believe what you wish, Rendelac,” said Vox. He took another sip of the tea, and raised it in salute to Weshar, who watched the gesture without comprehension. “The boutique offered great insight.”

“Do not confuse knowledge for insight, Vox Cul-Dar. Or information for knowledge.”

“How can one have knowledge without information?”

“They can’t. But they may have lumber without a home, if the lumber has not yet been properly built.”

“That is… one of the classic truths,” said Vox. “It is strange that I forgot.”

“You have not studied the wisdom of Rendelac in quite some time, Vox Cul-Dar. A flaming coal will grow cool if denied oxygen for fuel and the companionship of other coals.”

“Perhaps I made the tea improperly, too. There are mind-affecting effects, after all. Anyway… continue thanking him for me, please. Theshtreshar.”

After a quiet moment where Rendelac’s eye stared at Vox, the eye swiveled back to Weshar and Rendelac began speaking in the local Sthenite tongue. Vox watched the locals work while Rendelac spoke, and waved to a cluster of the young who were watching from nearby. The young feathered serpents seemed to panic and quickly slithered away at being noticed. While not all of the Azurebacks had truly azure backs, there was an overabundance of blues, bluish purples and bluish greens on the scales and feathers of the assembled. Vox wasn’t sure how this compared to other Sthenite groups, but he assumed that there was a difference.

Rendelac stopped speaking and Weshar began hissing and trilling in response.

“He says that we are quite welcome, and he, in turn, thanks us for our, well… ‘explosive injury’ is the best translation, though it is not a literal one… and he hopes that the Cerulean Tea is as soothing as you had hoped.”

“It is,” said Vox, taking another sip. It was warm, and he could feel different parts of his mind pulling into sharper focus while others became murky. It would not be dangerous in such small quantities, but he still wanted to know how it would function in advance.

“So tell me,” he said with a smile, “how does one say Cerulean?”

Rendelac’s eye shifted to blue. Vox wasn’t sure if the blue shift was an emotional response, or if Rendelac had control over the appearance and was choosing to make the color fit the question.

“As you know… the word for Cerulean is Theshtreshar. It’s an unusually specific shade of blue, and unusual that you would ask when you already have this knowledge.”

“I’m exchanging information for insight,” said Vox. “I have plenty of lumber now, and I wish to build my house.”

Episode 133: Defusion

Captain Ortega flipped the final switch.

“Lookin’ good, Mac!”

The grizzled, but cheerful, engineer who continued to stand just behind him was unnerving. While he had initially welcomed the presence of an actual engineer, specifically one trained in power generator subsystems and energy distribution management, he’d considered it to be a good sign. Unfortunately, the engineer had been interested in seeing how Ortega would go about the process, and almost seemed more interested in pointedly withholding information as a way of making the process an educational one. Ortega hoped that, at the very least, the engineer would be willing to stop him from doing something destructive or deadly.

He glanced at the capacitance meter, currently displaying a ninety-eight percent charge.

“Think it’ll hold?” asked Ortega.

“I dunno. Do you?”

“I’d really like your professional opinion,” said Ortega, trying to stay patient. “We have two percent left to… I mean, one percent left to make sure it won’t discharge.”

“Then let’s hope you’re right, Mac.”

“Andrew,” said Ortega. “My name is Andrew. Or Captain Ortega.”

“And my name is Frederick. Freddy Waylay. You know, I knew an Andy Ortega back when I worked at New Lima, do you think you’re related?”

“Probably not, but you never know. It’s always possib-”

The capacitance meter ticked forward to one-hundred percent. Ortega took a deep breath and stepped back. After a second, another display came to life displaying a booting procedure that quickly cycle to a system maintenance panel. Ortega exhaled, as did the many armed guards behind him.

“Well then,” said Ortega. “I guess we fixed it. Assuming the generators were synchronized, I’m guessing the other teams were successful too.”

“Great!” said Freddy. “I knew you could do it. Never doubted for a second.”

In the distance, Ortega could hear the sounds of other small crowds of people uttering quick cheers. The ship wouldn’t be destroyed, at least not in this fashion. He turned back to Freddy, nodding.

“Thanks for the confidence. It would’ve helped if you’d been more direct, though.”

“Would it?”

“Very much so.”

“Are you sure?”

“Y…yes?”

“I doubt it,” said the engineer. “If only three of these generators had been fixed, the rest of the ship’s systems would’ve been unaffected. The folks at the other stations wouldn’t have let us down.”

“Isn’t it better to assume that they might not be able to and make sure that our job is done well?”

“Well of course. That’s why I’m watching you, isn’t it? And besides, now you know how to fix this kind of problem again in the future.”

“Captain Ortega?” said a voice behind the Captain, cutting off his line of questioning with the engineer. Ortega turned to see the new speaker, and felt relieved to see Alsafi, carrying her observation crown at her side and revealing her face and hair. She was grinning, clearly relieved.

“Did everything turn out all right?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Well… effectively. One of the generators didn’t get completely fixed, but with no other generators linked to it the ship’s own fail-safes were enough to stop it in its tracks. There was some smoking, a little fire, but it was contained. Nice work. Glad to see that the action figure’s not all hype.”

“I hate those things.”

“Yeah, me too,” Alsafi said. “Totally. I mean, it’s just a money grab capitalizing on you.”

“Well, most of the proceeds go to charity. I’ve just always been weirded out by the eyes. They’re… off.”

“Oh! Yeah, okay, I get that. Cool. Guess it’s a good thing they made them, then. Gotta help the… charities. All the charities. Anyway, you’ve been called up to an audience with The Herald.”

“Zamona?”

“Yeah, that guy,” said Alsafi.

Ortega looked at the ground. Still unconscious, Ensign Trell continued to lie on the ground, motionless. He looked back up.

“I’m not sure I like that idea,” he said. “I’m not keen on going back in that cage.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Alsafi.

“Really?”

“Totally,” she said. “After how you got out of that last one, we’ll be putting you in a different cage entirely.”

Episode 132: Sky-Carrion

Vox Cul-Dar’s bulbous eyes snapped open.

He was in both pain and a large hut made of sturdy logs and stone. The roof looked like it was made of a forest floor, and dim light filtered in through a trio of holes that probably passed for windows in this society. Pulling himself into a sitting position he saw that he was on a small mat made of woven leaves and reeds. Other mats filled the room and a purple-scaled Sthenite with a grievous wound in its side was motionless on another. Tiny pots and jars lined the walls.

“I rise a new person, prepared for a new day, prepared for my future,” said Vox Cul-Dar, automatically reciting the words for the second time on this jungle world. His jaw hurt while speaking. His sides hurt while sitting. His head gently throbbed with pain.

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said the voice of Rendelac, sitting on a cushion of reeds at the head of the simple bed. “You have been through a great ordeal and experienced incredible trauma from a concussive force. Had you not leaped from Fletch’s explosive, you would have surely perished.”

“I feel as if everything is bruised,” Vox said, quickly examining himself. His tunic had been removed, making it easy to see numerous abrasions and areas where the green was turning a sickly shade of orange. “This is a hospital of some sort?”

“Yes,” said Rendelac. “The explosion drew the attention of the Sthenites, in particular one named Surshen. I have found them to be intelligent and wise in their handling of you and your situation.”

“How so?”

“Judging from what I’ve been able to translate of their language, their understanding of biochemistry was sufficient to determine how to give you quick treatments. They avoided certain medicines, saying that they may harm ‘other worlders’ but treated you with others that they felt would be safe.”

“I see. Were they correct?”

“In one instance, yes,” said Rendelac. “However, I believe most of their previous experience with people from other worlds has come from humans. It may please you to know that while most Other Worlders gain a certain term in their tongue, they have determined it does not apply to you.”

“Oh? What is this term?”

“Starprey.”

“Hmm. Yes… better to be at the mercy of their medicine than at the skill of their hunters.”

“Instead, they have taken to calling you Sky-Carrion.”

Vox narrowed his eyes.

“I think I like that. But I’m not sure.”

“There is a certain rough-and-tumble appeal to it, Vox Cul-Dar. Feel free to take joy in the term, but do not let it cloud your judgement about who you are.”

“Have no fear of that,” said Vox. “I come from their sky, was left for dead when I should have died, and I have risen again. I am under no misconceptions about who I am.”

He started rising to his feet, but the dull ache that stretched all the way down his legs quickly became a sharp, almost tearing sensation and he dropped back to the mat.

“Though I admit I may not have recovered as fully as I’d hoped.”

“This endeavor has taken a great toll on you, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “I fear it is transformative. I fear even more that it is merely a capstone of the path you have walked for years. You must rest.”

“Perhaps,” said Vox. He looked at the Sthenite on the other mat. The snake-like alien ruffled its feathers, giving the first indication Vox had seen that it was alive.

“Perhaps I shall stay a bit longer,” he said. “However, I must not tarry. How regularly do they check on their captives?”

“You are a patient.”

“How regularly do they check on their patients?”

“Regularly,” said Rendelac. “The Sthenite in charge of medical care enters every forty-five minutes, a time scale that fits their planetary rotation.”

“I will wait for another treatment from this medical caretaker of mine,” said Vox. “I will take more medicine. I trust they are receptive to you?”

“Yes, they have encountered computers before, presumably from other off-worlders. I could not understand the entirety of what they said to me, but they were civil enough to leave me near your bed.”

“With my limbs free for gesturing and your linguistic capabilities, perhaps we can convey which medicines will be most beneficial without poisoning me. I may have just lost the chase for Gamma to Fletch, Rendelac. That doesn’t sit well with me, but you are right that I have been pushing myself. Perhaps just a little longer… why do you think she set a bomb, Rendelac?”

“You are asking about Fletch’s motivations? This is difficult. She has never seemed like the other humans in the Desperate Measures Agency. She values things differently than others. My belief is that she set the explosive as an act of kindness.”

“Kindness?” said Vox, whipping his head in Rendelac’s direction and instantly regretting it. Pain radiated from his spine, encouraging him to lie back onto the bed.

“You had the dexterity required to avoid the blast, especially with the timer set after you triggered it. You were disoriented, but you were found by the natives. Killing you would have been simple, and she knew how to do it. Given your physical training and physiological differences from a human… that bomb slowed you down without ending your life.”

“I see. I can’t wait to receive her Get Well Soon noose.”

“Either way, you need to take the time to rest, Vox Cul-Dar.”

“I will take some time,” said Vox. “Not as much as you’d like, though. Or as much as she would like. We only have a limited amount of time to return her act of charity in kind.”

Episode 131: L’esprit de le Salon

Surshen’s story yielded confusing bounty. The Starprey was different than any other, so different in fact that it was decided, after much deliberation within the tribe, to not be Starprey at all. Prey was what you hunted, not what you found struggling to live.

No sport could be had with such an intruder, and like a child taking in a wounded flame serpent so did the tribe decide that, at least in this case, the wounded would be cared for.

***

The sun was setting, and the stars were just becoming visible in this region of Mandrake. The Phantom Matador finished balancing the logs and twigs in front of the cave he had chosen for the evening. Carefully, he maneuvered the handle of his energy blade and activated it so that the searing sword would be in contact with the pile without destroying it. In moments it began to smoke and, with a few quick breaths, it caught fire. Satisfied, the Matador pulled the mask back in front of his face and deactivated the blade.

“Lots of secrecy for someone just trying to make do in a jungle.”

The Phantom Matador looked over his shoulder and saw Zack Gamma. He placed the deactivated pommel of the sword into its mostly-decorative charging sheathe, and turned to face the detective.

“There are those on this planet who would profit by my identity, Gamma. The price on my head may not be as high as yours, but it remains. How did you locate me so quickly?”

“I spoke to Chala… the lady you stole the Fact from.”

“She had no idea where I had gone.”

“No, but I also spoke to Nectra, and she had some amazing insights into finding you.”

“I see… so, Nectra has decided to work with you instead of killing you. Pity. She needs you dead to get the support she needs for her case to be reopened, you know.”

“That’s a bridge to cross later.”

“Yes. It still doesn’t explain how you found me. She’s hidden with me a few times, but never when I’ve been hiding on my own.”

“I couldn’t have found you without Nectra’s help, though. Or Chala’s. Or yours, really.”

“Excuse me.”

“Hate to say it, Mat… can I call you Mat?…”

“Mat?”

“Short for Matador. Hate to say it, Mat, but the Fact wasn’t the only thing that Chala had in her forge.”

“Yes. She stockpiled Virellium, though it was unpurified. A suitable treasure, but not one that interests me more than my own survival.”

“Yeah… about that. It’s everywhere in there, buddy.”

“I fail to see the relevance.”

Zack reached into his coat and pulled out a device, a box with a screen and an antenna that the Matador had seen in operation before.

“The tracker,” he said. “The device that Nectra used to find you.”

“The Gamma Tracker’s an astounding piece of technology, I’ll give ya that. It led me right to you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t track me specifically. It tracks Virellium and people who’ve been exposed to it. So right now… right this second… there’s only three humans on the planet that it can find. One of them’s me, and I’m not interested in tracking Chala. But buddy, you spent more than enough time in that forge to qualify.”

“Incredible,” he said. “The device works wonders, then. It’s hard to believe that Nectra couldn’t prove it worked.”

“There aren’t that many people who’ve encountered Virellium,” said Zack. “It’s not common, she couldn’t do any tests. Heck, if Chala hadn’t been stockpiling it, I’d probably be the only person on the planet that it came after. Scientifically speakin’, that wouldn’t even be a good test, it’d just mean that it could track me for some reason. Tracking two wanted fugitives who only have this single thing in common, though? That’s scientifically noteworthy. Might even help to get Nectra’s case reopened. Plus, now it doesn’t matter that you’re so good at slipping away. This thing will find you anywhere. No matter where you go or how fast you run, Nectra’s tracker can follow you. And with her notes, more can be made. We’ll figure out who you are before you know we’re looking. Turn yourself in now, Matty, and maybe I’ll get you off this planet and into police custody on Veskid instead of seeing whatever passes for justice among the Sthenites. I’ve got a feeling they’re tough but fair, which is great news for folks like me but just awful for murderers like you.”

The Matador turned and walked a few paces from Zack, holding his chin. He looked up at the sky, and saw the pale green fading to a beautiful black.

“So… you say you want to figure out who I am?”

“Of course I do.”

“Does this mean, then… does this mean that you were mistaken about who you thought I was? Or are you no longer so sure?”

“What’re you talking about?” said Zack.

“When we were up in the sky… in that big, black, beautiful dance of stars and planets and asteroids before we fell into this unforgiving world… you said that you’d figured out who I was. And you said some things… some things that made me wonder if you had.”

Zack thought back to the asteroid. Something about the Phantom Matador’s words rang true. He didn’t recall the event, but there was definitely something there.

“I… don’t think you can blame a guy for wanting to double check.”

“Tell me who I am, detective,” said the Phantom Matador. “I challenge you. Tell me who you thought I was, at least. Earn your parlor scene. Or am I to remain ‘Mat’ to you, then? A harmless nickname to mask your own failure?”

“This ain’t about me,” said Zack. “You comin’ quietly or not?”

The matador looked back at Zack Gamma, just as a breeze caught his cape and lifted it behind him. He reached down to the hilt of his energy sword, drew it, and activated the shimmering blade of light just as a shooting star fell through the night sky behind him.

“Never,” said the impossibly cinematic phantom before fading from view.

“Nice exit,” said Zack, checking the screen of the tracker. “But let’s see how long you can keep ahead of me.”