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