Monthly Archives: October 2015

Episode 153: Uncooperative Plans

Xorn’Tal’s vision was not as advanced as a human’s, but he still appreciated staring out the window. The shifting stars as The Soul Survivor continued moving the pirated vessel through space were a pleasant distraction from the situation. The humans had a great capacity for complaint, finding new ways to both qualify and quantify how poorly things were going.

“I just want to know WHY it’s locked,” said Carmen. “We left the door to the kitchen propped open. I mean, how long has it been closed? Did Tan get loose?”

“Probably,” said Vince. “We had to move fast, and Xorn’Tal was improvising. No offense, Xorn’Tal.”

Xorn’Tal lifted one of his articulated vines in an imitation of the human gesture of raising a hand to acknowledge a comment when no offense was taken. He continued staring out the window, watching the drifting of the stars.

“Was it closed when he asked me to go to the end of the hallway?” asked Carmen. “I didn’t notice anything… would it be more normal to notice a door you left open being closed, or a door that’s usually closed being open?”

“I… don’t know. Why would I know that?”

“I don’t know, people know things. Maybe you watched a documentary or heard something in a class back in school one day.”

“You seriously think I’ve ever watched a documentary before?”

“You might’ve.”

“Have you?”

“Do special features on movies count? Like, the ones that explain how they made the movie?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve watched those.”

“So you HAVE watched a documentary!” said Carmen.

“I didn’t mean that kind of documentary. I meant, like… nature specials, or things that go into how other things are made.”

“Ship: Nearing,” said Xorn’Tal.

“Yeah, like how ships are m-… wait, what?” said Vince.

“Ship: Nearing,” repeated Xorn’Tal. “Course: non-intercept.”

“You mean we’re going to crash?” said Carmen, walking from the door to the kitchen area and toward the window.

“Likelihood: Negligible,” said Xorn’Tal. “Certainty: Greater: Intentional Piloting.”

“I think you’re right,” said Carmen, looking through the window.

“You mean that it’s not coming to intercept us, but the Soul Survivor’s moving to intercept it?”

“Or at least get close to it,” said Carmen. “Not sure what’s goin’ on between the sides of that polished crystal where his ears should be.”

She stepped from the window and walked to the door, where she began hammering on it insistently.

“Hey, Soul Patch! Let’s talk about the flight plan!”

“I am The Soul Survivor, and I have no information that you need,” said the now-familiar voice from the ship’s communication system.

“What’s the big deal? First you hijack a ship, and then you take it back?”

“Your refusal to allow Tan to return to the bridge has necessitated a change in plans. I will need to take a more direct approach to easily leave this system.”

“So you’re movin’ on to Plan B? That’s what you get for messin’ with the best.”

“That you choose not to aid in my plans and thus become a part of the legacy of The Soul Survivor is your folly, as partaking in my brilliance is a delight. I do not begrudge you your ignorance, but yes, I must move on to plans that require substantially less cooperation from you. Because you three amuse me, I have allowed the oxygen, lights, and gravity to continue running in your hallway. Pound upon that door all you wish; your antics will neither hasten nor delay your eventual fate.”

“You’re not worried that they’ll be able to find you when you get this close to them?” said Vince. “I don’t know much about your technology, but won’t that be a big power… thing? A drain or burst or moving empty space on their sensors or something?”

“You’ve seen too many poorly conceived films, but you are, astoundingly, correct when you say that there is a risk of discovery.”

“You: Anti-Worry?”

“Not as worried as you should be,” said The Soul Survivor. “I can survive and escape from any incarceration to which I am subjected. If they find you… such as through any attempted distractions on your part… I doubt that you will find their captivity as enjoyable as I shall.”

Episode 152: Circuses

“How long until everything’s in position?” asked Zamona, pushing his way into the war room. The generals and strategists looked up from the terminals built into the chamber’s central table, and quickly shuffled their work into a presentable mess.

“Well?” said Zamona, drawing closer. “We don’t have a lot of time, and we’re losing people in the dog fights out there.”

“Losses are acceptable,” said Commander Sanchez. “We’re seventy percent in position. We might’ve run out of time on the smooth PR front, though.”

“How?” asked Zamona.

“We’ve received replies to the letters sent to the rulers of Veskid. They came with varying responses depending on who you’d sent it to and what you’d asked of them, but with the exception of one they all indicate that they’re expecting their responses to hinge on the result of your duel with Captain Andrew Ortega of the Astroguard.”

“And did you tell them that there’s not going to be a duel with Captain Ortega?”

“No, sir. You instructed us not to address that issue or comment on it because of the potential PR damage.”

“Good. Keep it that way. Who’s playing along?”

“Sir?”

“You said one of the leaders of Veskid didn’t say that they were waiting to hear about the duel with Ortega.”

“Oh. No, sir, I meant that one of the leaders didn’t respond, so they’re apparently not waiting on a duel.”

“You mean we’re being ignored?”

“Yes, sir. By BristleCorp.”

Zamona swung his fist to the side and punctured the wall, revealing structural fixtures, wires, and other components. Half of the lights in the room sparked and went dark. Harold looked at the ceiling and sheepishly pulled his hand out of the wall.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’ll get someone along to fix that… BristleCorp’s the big one, they’re the ones we need.”

“Sir, they’re not even involved in the administrative or legislative control of-”

“They control it all,” said Zamona. “Believe me, they’ve got their hands in everything. Someone wants to have a say in how often garbage gets picked up in an alley, they’ve gotta deal with BristleCorp. This planet’s one of their biggest bases. It’s the Cor Leonis, the brightest star and the heart of the beast. Or one of the hearts, anyway.”

“Sir, we can easily take the planet without them.”

“The planet’s just a bonus, Commander. Send them another message… let them know that I’ll personally take an interest in their activities if they don’t respond.”

“This’ll take time, sir,” said Sanchez. “We’ve got the public’s interest right now, if we wait for another reply from a company that most of the public isn’t even aware of-”

“Right,” said Zamona. “Well then… we’ll give ‘em time. Let Ortega out of his cell. Send him and a camera crew to my gym. If they don’t want cake, we’ll give ‘em the circus.”

Episode 151: A Truth Recalled

Officer Tacara watched the light show in the night sky above Helix. She’d volunteered for extra shifts ever since the Dyson invasion forces began harassing Veskid’s military which had been completely taken by surprise but had mustered itself well. The explosions of ships in the sky were few enough and nearly all of the debris that might fall from the sky would burn up in either the atmosphere or the protective shield that Helix could generate, but the sight put the city on edge. Keeping her car hovering above the buildings near the highest portions of Beta Street, she was both ready for emergency calls and in a better position to see the battles in the sky when they came near enough, views more impressive than what the news would show if she stayed at home.

With a burst of white noise, her communications channel opened.

“Come in, Tacara.”

“Tacara here. View looking good on Alpha Street, Carlu?”

“It’s stellar. Hey, we just broke up a few people helping themselves to some discounts at some stores that closed early because of the light show. There were some people there outside of the usual suspects. You see anyone running around with special operations gear?”

“Can’t say that I have,” said Tacara. “You’re saying that the Veskid military’s getting in on the looting? In Helix?”

“No, the uniforms were different. They had that half-eye logo from the commercial.”

“You think you saw Dyson troops on the ground?”

“It looked like ‘em.”

“You probably just saw a different logo. Or maybe there are some people in Helix taking the Dyson emblem as a mark to rally behind, or to make them harder to identify later.”

“You think street gangs are getting their hands on military grade special operations gear?”

“No, but I think that between Helix and Veskid City we’ll have scores, literal scores, of lone wolves who’ve all individually acquired that sort of thing.”

“All righty. I’m just tryin’ to make sure justice is done, is all.”

“You’re one of the good ones, Carlu. Stay safe out there.”

Carlu’s end of the line went silent. Tacara looked into the sky and saw three pinprick explosions, like miniature firecrackers popping overhead. She reopened the channel.

“Carlu?”

“Yeah?”

“What was that about justice?”

“Makin’ sure it’s done?”

“Yeah, that.”

“Just seems like we should try to find the guilty parties here. And, hey, it’s probably not this Dyson guy, but if it is…”

“Right,” she said. “Seems unlikely because no ships have landed… be sure to call it in.”

“I did, with the main report.”

“Call it in as its own report. All the details.”

“Why?”

“Something a Pyrhian air man told me. Probably nothing. But… well, the Dyson Empire managed to get their ships into our system without passing through any surrounding territories. If they could move big ships… well…”

“You think they could move individual people down to a planet?”

“I don’t think so, but there’ve been reports of some civilizations cracking that problem. And some individuals like The Soul Survivor, on occasion. Then there’s things like the Void Pilgrim.”

“Heh. Tacara, you believe in the Void Pilgrim? ‘Void Pilgrim yet flies’ and all that?”

“I… no, but I won’t rule it out. Especially if you’re seeing Dyson troops on the ground.”

Episode 150: The Unmasking

“Let’s go, then,” said Nectra, moving to the Phantom Matador’s legs and picking up his shoes.

“Not just yet,” said Zack. “One piece of business first. This guy’s got a bad habit of vanishing right when we think we’ve got him. I say it’s high time that I see what he looks like without his mask.”

“Ooh, yes,” said Nectra, dropping the feet. “Yes, you should do that. He looked friendly to me.”

“Wait, you saw him without a mask?”

“Yeah, back on the asteroids.”

“You were on some asteroids?”

“Oh, yes, following you. It was exciting.”

Zack held his chin, and thought. Asteroids were be a viable way to travel between worlds if you had a method for making sure they had an atmosphere and heat, and more than a little thought put into making sure that changes in direction didn’t fling a person off into space or kill them from the sudden increase in gravity. He thought he could remember a starry night sky on top of a mountain while he climbed a great chain or vine to another mountain top. The mountains were moving? Had he been on an asteroid? He shook his head.

“Great,” said Zack. “You can point him out in a line up. He says that I said I knew who he was… I’m not sure what happened that made me figure it out. Maybe I was bluffing. Either way, time to erase any doubt. Mister Matador, it’s time to figure out who you really are.”

Zack grabbed the mask with his left hand and the hat with his right hand. He took a deep breath and, in one fluid motion, pulled down the mask while pulling off the hat. The man had black hair, which had always been partly visible, and a thin, surprisingly kind face. Zack stared at the figure and sighed.

“Well then,” he said. “Now we can both pull him out of a line up.”

“You mean you don’t know who he is?” said Nectra.

“He looks familiar. Face like that, I’ve probably seen him on a movie poster somewhere.”

“Wait, no,” said Nectra. “No, you seemed so sure that you’d know who he was.”

“Well, the Matador said I’d be sure,” said Zack. “I wanted to believe him… and honestly, old Matty probably wanted to be caught and recognized on some level.”

“Why?”

“Beats me, but they say that about these flamboyant cases. They want attention, to be remembered. Usually, I mean.”

“You think he might be a special case?”

“No such thing as a case that isn’t.”

Nectra looked at the Phantom Matador’s face and shook her head.

“No, I know who he is.”

“You do?” said Zack. “Who?”

“He’s the guy we’re about to drag through miles of jungle so that we can turn him over to the Sthenites.”

Zack stared at the shangmerian assassin until she broke into a nervous smile with her too-wide mouth. Zack caved, shook his head, and smiled.

“You’ve watched too many of humanity’s bad movies, Nectra.”

“Was it good? Was it a good tough line?”

“Not bad for a first attempt,” said Zack, picking up the Matador’s arms. “You’re right, though. Time to get moving. I don’t know why he’s out like this, but we’d better take advantage of it before he wakes up. I think we go… that way, toward those three spongey tree things.”

“Great!” said Nectra, picking up the Matador’s legs. Together they carefully lifted the Matador and started to walk him out of the clearing. As they neared the tree line, Nectra watched the face of the Phantom Matador and cleared her throat.

“Zack, I’m sorry that you don’t know who this is.”

“Don’t worry about. He said I’d already claimed to know who he was, and that’s good enough for me, at least until I figure out why I can’t remember things anymore.”

“Good. So… is this the best way to move an unconscious human?”

“Honestly, it’s not come up for me very often,” said Zack. “We can switch it up after we take our first break.”

Episode 149: Detour From Memory Lane

The silence that followed Fletch’s question echoed through the clearing. He scratched the back of his neck, looked at the ground, and walked a few steps away from the assassin.

“Well?” she asked.

“I’m thinking.”

“This isn’t the time to play dumb. Tell me now.”

“I don’t know,” said Zack. “I really don’t know.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Then… then I don’t know what to say. Better fry me with your blaster there…”

“Stop it,” said Fletch. “You’re… trying to be noble or help the greater good or something, but stop it.”

“I’m not!” said Zack. “Look, Fletch, I don’t know why the price showed up on my head. I just know that it’s there.”

“Zack, what’ll happen if I know? Will a planet be vaporized if the wrong secret gets out? Will it put me on the trail of a former client who’s also got a bounty on his head? Do you think it’ll make the last member of a dying race be executed somewhere? Were you sworn to secrecy about the Void Pilgrim?”

A flash of neurons zipped through Zack’s brain, and he almost thought he had the shape of a resurfacing memory to hold onto. Before he could grab it, he coughed and spluttered, staggering back. Zack waved his hand.

“Sorry,” he said. “I really don’t know. Look, my walks through memory lane’ve been going on detours lately. Either I did something and I forgot about it, or me being listed there is a mistake. That’s really all I know. Kill me and get it over with, spare me any more of this crazy cold.”

Fletch’s reticle flashed, zipped back and forth as if studying Zack, and went dark.

“Well, you’re either a better liar than my gear can detect… unlikely for a human, but not unprecedented… or you’re telling the truth and just can’t give me the information. You don’t have a cold though.”

“Lady, the way I’ve been breathing lately-”

“I can’t study your blood itself with just my reticle, but you’re not showing any of the most common signs of the cold apart from breathing. You’ve got some strange lung issues, but it doesn’t look like a cold.”

Zack stood up straighter.

“Just how good is that reticle of yours?”

“It’s not bad. If I wasn’t going to kill you in six hours I’d ask you to get your head examined… you’ve sustained a lot of blunt damage there within at least the last fortnight.”

“Thanks for the sympathy. Wait, six hours?”

“The deal stands,” said Fletch. “I’d kill you now if you were lying, but frankly you’re not. Improbable as that is.”

“Wow,” said Zack. “Wow, great. You’re a real stand up gal, you know that?”

Fletch frowned.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been called a gal before.”

“Sorry,” said Zack. “Won’t happen again.”

“I’ll see you in six, Gamma,” said Fletch, turning to walk away and pulling a strange device with a screen out of a compartment on her belt. “Tell your friend thanks for not swooping in here to try and stop me. I still need to repay Miss Shift for that.”

She walked away from the Phantom Matador’s campfire, and soon blended into the shadows before reaching the treeline. Zack shook his head.

“I’ve still gotta get some more yellow for my coat.”

“Yellow?”

Zack turned just in time to see Nectra’s feet touching down at the end of a glide, her staff extending to keep her balance. Zack shook his head.

“Something I was thinking earlier, not important.”

“Who was she?” asked Nectra. “I wanted to fly out and help, but it looked like things were civil after you two started talking. Oh, is she an old friend? An old friend from your agency? Was she sent here for the Phantom Matador, but then you triggered a trap for him and narrowly avoided it while she recognized you, and then you had to explain to her that she might need the bounty, but you need him for your trial, and then her old feelings for you won out leading her to walk away so that you could keep your word to the Sthenites?”

“Nah, nothing that fancy, she just wants me dead. Probably best that you didn’t fly out here. Help me move this body, we’ve only got a six hour head start.”

“Six hours?”

“She gave me six hours in exchange for some information. Turns out I didn’t have the information, but her word’s got more weight to it than most people at the DMA. It’s one of the reasons why she’s the best, I think.”

“Wait, in six hours she’ll just show up again and kill you? Zack, we can’t let that happen. I need you to reopen my case. Or to kill you myself.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Zack, waving his hands in front of the Phantom Matador’s face. “Six hours from now, we’ll be back with the Sthenites, and I’ll be able to hide anywhere I want on this planet.”

***

Fletched walked through the treeline, checking her device. It wasn’t useful for much except for tracking a certain kind of radiation. However, by a fortuitous set of circumstances, the radiation it detected was given off by Samodiva Cannons. Zack had almost ruined everything by not moving quickly enough, even after the Samodiva Cannon had its charging sequence slowed to give any potential victims more time to dodge.

She made her way the short distance to her ship, The Bakekujira. The bone-white protrusions outside the black hull of the vessel were fitted with anti-detection hardware to give her a fighting chance of sneaking past nearly any no-fly zones that might otherwise slow down her missions.

She checked the screen of her radiation meter and shook her head. It would only work across short distances, and the radiation signature wouldn’t last long. Eight hours would have been too risky, after all, but six hours would keep Zack from slipping away one last time.

Episode 148: Haggling

Zack leaned against a tree until he felt the wave of nausea pass. His throat was scratching like a flea circus pitchman, but he couldn’t cough until he had the Phantom Matador in point blank range of his strikers.

He lifted his head. The clearing was large, and the glowing fire cast long shadows which Zack tried to use as he left the tree line. The Phantom Matador was sitting near the fire, his cape pulled behind him and his hat pulled down in front of his face. He might have been dozing, an ideal situation that Zack wouldn’t count on.

He stepped closer, covering the distance. He checked Nectra’s scanner one last time, and determined that The Phantom Matador was, in fact, right in front of him. No strange psychic projections were hampering the scene.

Zack slipped the tracker into a pocket of his coat and reached for his holsters. The twin Purcellian Striker pistols lifted and aimed at the Matador. He stepped closer. Hey, Mat… that’s what he’d say. Hey, Mat. It’d give the upper hand conversationally.

Zack closed to within five feet of the Matador. A gentle wind was blowing through the clearing, pushing the smoke from the fire to the side.

Zack heard a click from the treeline ahead of him.

The whine of a powerful capacitor charging sounded from the darkness.

Zack panicked and started jumping to the right. Time slowed as a glowing sphere of blue-white energy launched from the darkness. Zack fell on the ground and the blast of energy passed over his head. Zack rolled to a kneeling position and aimed his Strikers at the darkness. He watched and listened carefully as the analytical part of his mind started processing.

“Vodianoi Cannon?” he whispered to himself, watching the trees carefully, and missing the sound of the footsteps behind him.

“Samodiva Cannon,” said a voice. Zack looked over his shoulder and saw a woman in a blue cysuit with a cybernetic reticle over an eye. She held her near-legendary Chernoblaster, keeping it at a point-blank range.

“Fletch?!” he said, instinctively trying to jump back, but tripping over his own feet as he did so.

“The Vodianoi Cannon is built to be submerged under water. The Samodiva Cannon is built to hide in clusters of trees, caves, other dark wilderness locations. Now, I would’ve preferred to use a Jinmenju Snare instead of a Samodiva Cannon… and if we were near water I actually brought a Jorogumo Striker… but you work with what you’ve got!”

Zack’s mind raced. He didn’t know military-grade munitions the way that Fletch did, but there was a definite pattern.

“I don’t… I don’t understand. Fletch, the Samodiva’s not deadly.”

“What if you’d picked up the poor Phantom Matador to use as a human shield?” she said. “I can get his bounty if he’s alive.”

“But… the Jinmenju Snare, that’s just a trapping device, isn’t it?”

“Doesn’t leave much mess to clean up, and doesn’t take away so much evidence that they’ve only got my say so that I finished the job. The DMA’ll award a bounty if there’s no body, but only if you can prove that you caused the death.”

Zack narrowed his eyes.

“That blaster of yours would leave the evidence, though. And I can’t help but notice that I’m still noticin’ things, almost like you hadn’t killed me yet.”

“I haven’t.”

“You’re a professional, Fletch,” he said. “Best in the business. Not that I’m not grateful, but why’re you not finishing me off? What do you want?”

“Make no mistake, I do want to kill you,” said Fletch. “I wanted to kill you before, at Murk’s stronghold in Helix. There were too many other mercenaries crawling around, though. Too much competition. Especially from your friend Igneous.”

Zack slowly rose to his feet, keeping a close eye on the gun.

“You think she’d stop someone from gettin’ to me? She’s not stupid. The DMA’d put a bounty on her head just like on mine if she helped me.”

“She could still injure another assassin and claim it was an attempt to catch you. A moot point, though, as she helped me to find you here on Mandrake. Practically arranged it, even.”

Zack opened his mouth to respond but couldn’t. Fletch paused and watched his face carefully.

“Did she, now?” he said.

“She did. Now, I do plan on killing you, Zack Gamma, the bounty’s only good if you’re dead. But I need some information first, and fortunately there aren’t any other bounty hunters or assassins on this planet who might overhear, assuming he knows what’s good for him.”

“Him?”

“Had some competition when I first got here, but it’s been handled. Ready to tell me what I want to know?”

“Why should I? You’ll kill me anyway.”

“You want a five minute head start?”

“Pass. I’ll take a day’s head start, though.”

“You think I’d let you last a day out there?”

“I think you’ll let me last however long we agree on.”

Fletch paused and, after a moment, lowered the gun to her side.

“Two hours.”

“Twelve hours.”

“Six.”

“Eight.”

“Six, or I kill you right now,” she said. “I want to know, but I don’t want to know that badly.”

“You’re tryin’ to lowball me. We can push this to seven.”

Fletch raised the Chernoblaster.

“Or six,” said Zack. “Six hour head start… and I get the Phantom Matador.”

Fletch lowered her weapon and looked over at the unconscious figure that she’d propped by the fire.

“He’ll just be dead weight while you put distance between yourself and me. And with no way off the planet he’s just going back into my custody after I catch you.”

“You’ll have to pry him away from the Sthenites,” said Zack. “I’m in the middle of a trial, and I’m about out of time, but he’s important to it.”

Fletch looked up to the sky, then back to the Phantom Matador. Her reticle swiveled and focused on Zack while she stared at her sleeping prisoner.

“I suppose six hours would give me time to make some more preparations at the Bake-Kujira.”

“The what?”

“My ship,” said Fletch. “Fine. You’ve got your six hours, and the custody of the Phantom Matador. Congrats on another fourth of a day of life, Zack Gamma. Assuming, of course, that your information is good.”

“Shoot,” said Zack. “Well, I mean… go for it. Ask your questions, I mean.”

“I’ve only got one,” said Fletch. “What did you do to get the DMA to put this bounty on your head?”

Episode 147: Heed ‘Em

Zack coughed and stopped pushing through the underbrush. The heat of the jungle and the soft soil would have wearied him on the best of days, and today was worse than normal. Nectra glided back to his position from up ahead and watched him hacking and wheezing between the alien vegetation.

“Are you okay? You need to sit down for a bit?”

“Nah, I’m good,” said Zack. “I’ve just gotta stop smoking.”

“You smoke?”

“No, but I could pick it up. Any sight of the Lusca Vine?”

“The what?”

Zack stared at Nectra before shaking his head.

“Sorry, I mean… any sight of The Phantom Matador?”

“Yes!” she said, excited. “There’s a clearing ahead. The tracker points right to it, and he’s sitting right there, with a campfire. I think he’s ready. Is this running someone to ground? Did we run someone to ground?”

“I think we’ve gotta catch him first before we’ve run him to ground,” said Zack. “Idioms were never my strong suit. I think he’s run to ground, though. Maybe. Don’t the shangmere have sayings like that? ‘Fly him to web’ or something?”

“A few!” said Nectra. “Though we don’t have that one. Maybe we should? Flying doesn’t really come up very often as a hunting thing for us. I think the martial artists talk about it more?”

“Shouldn’t you know about that, then?”

“Why?”

“Well, you seem pretty martially artistic.”

“Oh, thanks! I’m not, though. I’m really not. This is just a hobby, and I’m more interested in the balancing part of it. Helps keep me focused!”

“Remind me to never cross an actual shangmere fighter, then,” said Zack, clearing his throat. “You’re pretty good from what I’ve seen. Now let’s… keep moving on. I’ve gotta make sure not to cough on my way into that clearing. I want to make sure he’s in my sights before he even knows that I’m there.”

***

“Your plan was sound,” said Vox, walking along the gentle trail that left the city of the Azurebacks. “And, in truth, there were some rumblings that Rendelac was able to translate that sound as if they relate to Zack Gamma. How did you plan on speaking to the Sthenites, though?”

Igneous reached to her back and moved a small, brown and red pack, one that Vox had assumed to be an oddly colored patch of rock that protruded from a shoulder. She opened the pack and a wave of cool mist billowed from within.

“I have basic supplies. A translation device is included. I don’t know if I could’ve picked up enough dialog for it to work, but I was willing to try.”

“Hmm. Well, fortunately for you, Rendelac and I were welcomed to the conversation. There was an instance of someone, referred to as Star Prey. This word might have applied to myself if Fletch hadn’t tried to detonate me. This Star Prey has been accepted by someone from another world, and may be facing a sort of trial to determine worth by the society. If this other Star Prey is, in fact, Zack Gamma, then we may have found our prey.”

“Our first target is Fletch,” said Igneous, sliding the pack over her back again. “Don’t forget that we need to find her first, Vox.”

“You think I’ll delay catching Zack for your whim?”

“I’m gonna die here, and you want money,” said Igneous. “For right now, I think your goal is closer to being a whim than mine. Humor me here.”

“Our deal did not specify that-”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “Binding oneself to the letter of the law leaves you subject to the letters of those whose good will you may later seek.”

“Yeah,” said Igneous. “Heed ‘em.”

Vox stopped walking. He reached into his own pack and pulled out Rendelac. The thin computer’s eye was glowing orange.

“Don’t think finding an ally will dissuade me any further.”

“You are free to act as you will, Vox Cul-Dar. My advice remains just as valid whether or not others support it.”

Vox frowned and pushed Rendelac back into his pack.

“And I am just as free to ignore the advice.”

“You carry around a philosophy computer just so that you can ignore it?” said igneous. “Someone’s gotta teach you a few lessons about packin’ light.”

“Rendelac’s teachings are often sound. When they apply to my situation, they are very worthwhile.”

“Fancy computer like that probably thinks what it has to say applies to your life just fine. Don’t blame it for doin’ its job, Vox.”

“Your opinion on what I do with my cultural heritage has been noted. Regardless, perhaps I was hasty. We will seek both Zack Gamma and Fletch. I expect this partnership to endure as we deal with both targets, though. I won’t have you abandoning me once we reclaim your Teles.”

“Right,” said Igneous. “Perish the thought.”

Episode 146: A Private Offer

“Carmen Shift, please move to the far end of the hallway.”

Carmen sat up and looked around, trying to identify the source of the voice. It was a woman’s voice, soft and lilting. Xorn’Tal and Vince were also making themselves comfortable at the door to the bridge, and neither looked like they were speaking. Carmen opened her mouth to speak.

“Don’t. They didn’t hear me.”

“Hmm?”

“Only you can hear me, Carmen Shift. Please move to the far end of the hallway. I must speak with you, and you would do well to not appear to be speaking to yourself.”

Carmen raised an eyebrow but stood. Xorn’Tal seemed to not care, and Vince merely nodded in recognition of the fact that she was moving. A lethargy had settled upon the racers after their failure to find a quick solution to the problem of the door. Carmen walked passed the window that revealed their proximity to Mandrake. She passed a maintenance hatch, a lavatory, and a supply closet before she neared the door to the kitchen.

“That’s far enough,” said the voice.

“Great,” said Carmen, quietly. “So, what’s your mondo mysterioso angle here?”

“Carmen,” said the voice, changing dramatically to a masculine, sonorous tenor. “It is I, the Soul Survivor!”

“Figures,” she said. “I don’t need this. Later.”

“Wait,” said the Soul Survivor. “Don’t leave. I’m going to release you?”

“Great,” said Carmen. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch, apart from my difficulty in locating a suitable drop point for you. The Dyson Empire’s forces have locked down most safe ports and entrances to the system, and I’d rather not take you so far away just to release you. There is a mostly unharassed fueling station at the far reaches of the system, though. I could fly out of my way and leave you there.”

“Seriously? Huh. That’s surprising. Well… thanks. I’ll tell the guys.”

“Do you believe that’s wise?”

“To tell ‘em we’ll be out of this tin can soon? Seems smart to me.”

“Ah. I… have communicated this poorly.”

“Communicated what?”

“Miss Shift, I intend to release you. The other two will stay as my prisoners until I can finally contact someone within your racing federation to pay for them. I believe I may yet profit from this venture.”

“Hey now, you said now catches.”

“This isn’t a catch. You go free, no strings attached. Your friends, though… they must endure here.”

“You really can’t see why that’s a catch?”

“We are debating semantics.”

“No, I’m debating you. You think I’d just leave them?”

“Carmen, you okay?” called Vince from the opposite end of the hall.

“Tan: escaped?” called Xorn’Tal’s translator.

“Your voice carried farther than hoped,” said the Soul Survivor.

“Yeah, it does that when I’m mad,” she said. “No, I’m fine you two. Hey, listen-”

“Carmen-”

“Shut up,” said Carmen, walking back. “The Soul Survivor’s talking to me. Only I can hear it because of… I don’t know, something dumb.”

“I’m bouncing the sound waves so that they only grow audible in your immediate-”

“I said shut up. Basically, the brains of this operation wants to kick me off the ship at some fueling station while leaving you here until he gets his ransom payment.”

“Nice,” said Vince. “Lucky you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not going unless we’re all going.”

“Really?” said Vince, rising to his feet. “Carmen, I think if we can get one of us off this ship, it’s a chance worth taking.”

“I think it’s stupid to split the group like that,” said Carmen. “Thanks for voting to get me out of here, but with all three of us we’ve got a better chance of taking advantage of any surprises the Soul Survivor throws our way.”

“Surprises: Unlikely,” said Xorn’Tal. “Alternative thought: point: valid.”

The Soul Survivor listened to their argument, seething but willing himself to remain logical. If Carmen Shift wouldn’t take his generous offer, then she could stay confined with the other racers despite what his fading sentimentality had to say about it. The past would remain in the past, and the future would involve a greater ransom because of it.

Episode 145: Document Delivery

Mister Mayfair heard the polite cough of Julianna Dawes, the latest administrative assistant to be granted a position working for his division of BristleCorp’s Pando Project. He looked up from his desk and saw the orange-skinned human holding up a document.

“A message for you, Mister Mayfair. It wasn’t marked as urgent, but I took the liberty of treating it as such.”

Mayfair held up a finger and quickly finished scanning the document he was working on. He noted the pertinent corrections onto the context-sensitive interface of his desk and turned to face Dawes.

“Good timing. I have a few minutes here. What’s the issue?”

“You’re familiar with the Dyson Empire’s attacks within the system?”

“It’s hard not to be. Brilliant light show. Our building should be safe from most incidental damages likely to occur in a battle of this sort.”

“Emperor Dyson’s Herald has sent a list of demands to the rulers of Veskid,” said Dawes, handing the document to Mayfair. “It seems that we were included on that list?”

“Oh?” said Mayfair, taking the document and reading it. “That doesn’t make sense. We’re not the only… oh.”

Mayfair read the document, a single piece of paper with text filling only two-thirds of its available space. It had been years since Mayfair had misread something on a document of this nature, but he read it three times just to be certain.

“This can’t be accurate. Surely any reasonable person would know that we can’t do this.”

“Harold Zamona seems to believe that we can.”

“Well, let him know that he’s wrong,” said Mayfair, pushing the document away and onto his desk, where its contents were quickly scanned, registered, and filed away. “Even if we ignored the incredible cost and the unimaginable impact on local economy, we simply don’t have the authority.”

“I know, sir,” said Dawes.

Mayfair drummed the top of his desk.

“Right. Here’s what we do: nothing. We don’t respond, we don’t acknowledge, and we don’t activate. In two hours, remand all employees with a Rho classification or higher to a protective facility unless they have proper clearance to ignore you for this kind of order and choose to ignore you, they should know what they’re doing. Include yourself in this list if you wish, or just take the rest of the day off if you’d prefer. In the event of my death, I have a pre-written letter of recommendation on file for you.”

“Thank you, sir, though it’s hard to imagine working anywhere other than BristleCorp.”

“Good, we might have some career vacancies in the near future. I’m going to call some of my counterparts and let them know what’s happening.”

“Good luck, sir.”

Dawes nodded, turned, and walked for the door of the office while Mayfair reached under his desk. The helmet resembled an old fashioned sky divers helmet, though the interface was decidedly modern. Mayfair lowered the headgear onto his head until it obscured his eyes.

“Conference Call,” he said. “Urgency Level Two.”

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack’s room was as tiny as the rooms in the hotel came, which was still more spacious than the kinds of places he liked working. He shuffled through the documents in for the next DMA assignment, a case involving two sects of different religious groups that had monasteries close enough to each other that one was blaming the other for a series of unfortunate ‘accidents’ that had been increasing in number, one including a death. He kept an older style clock on the nightstand near his bed, one that would tick and remind him of the passing time, since he knew that he had to make it to the space port in order to get through security.

He slid the final documents that would help the case into the green folder, and pushed the folder itself into his new briefcase, a parting gift from Azar. He’d withdrawn his support of Azar’s anonymous case from the Desperate Measures Agency at Azar’s request, marking the case as “complete”, a generic enough description that was accurate enough without giving anything away. Azar would continue paying him personally and had even offered to pay what he’d been paying the Agency, meaning that Zack would be getting a raise now that the DMA wouldn’t be taking its percentage off the top.

Zack turned his attention to the second folder, the red folder. Despite the color of the dyes, Zack noted that the folders had actually been made from abacá when he purchased them, making them genuine manila folders, an extra expense he was willing to spring for. The red folder involved notes from his case with Azar, including some predictive strategies for reacting to likely eventualities while he was gone. He checked it to make sure that everything was in order, sighed, and closed it. Taking a pen, he wrote the word “Eclipse” on the top of the folder so that he could refer to the plans by shorthand in the future without giving away too much of the contents of the documents.

He donned his coat and his hat, grabbed the briefcase and the red folder, and left. He’d decided it would be best to part ways without drawing much attention to it, so he had said his goodbyes to Azar and Harold the previous night. This didn’t stop him from passing Azar’s door on the way to the elevators, though, and as he moved in front of the door he carefully slid the red folder beneath it.

His business concluded, he walked to the elevator. The early hour meant he hadn’t seen a soul since leaving his room, and the bellhop carrying the suitcase inside the elevator was almost startling. He recovered quickly and tipped his hat to the bellhop as he entered the elevator, and the bellhop gave a friendly salute in return.

“Going down?” asked Zack.

“No, but we can head down first. We’ve got an early arrival, but I don’t think they’ll be finished checking in for a few minutes yet, so I’ve got the time.”

“Thanks, pal,” said Zack as the doors closed. He pushed the down button and felt the shift in inertia as it began to descend. “Thanks for the attention to detail while I’ve been here, by the by. This company’s a real tight ship.”

“We aim to please. I take it you’re leaving then?”

“Yeah,” said Zack. “I’ve got a plane to catch.”

“Not a ship?”

“No, I’m leaving the spaceport by plane. They have some small charter ones if you’re just going elsewhere on the world.”

“You sure you want to do that?” asked the Bellhop. “I’ve heard that outside the parts that are dedicated to tourism this world can be a little rough.”

Zack grinned as the elevator stopped and the doors slid open.

“What can I say?” he said, stepping into the lobby. “Duty calls.”

Episode 144: Commercial Interruption

“Attention, people of Veskid, we apologize for this interruption, brought to you by your new leader, Emperor Dyson!”

The announcer’s voice blared over most visual or audio entertainment and information devices on the planet. Those who benefited from the visual feed saw the emblem of the Dyson Empire, the pointed half-oval on its side with a dot floating in the middle, an image resembling half an eye. The oval spun on an invisible axis while the dot remained stationary until the announcer finished speaking.

The image faded to a dimly lit studio. Harold Zamona sat at a desk with a glowing pattern of lights behind him. He smiled and waved to the camera.

“I apologize for this interruption, everyone on Veskid. I thought it best to let you know what’s been happening since our invasion began. Your government has been fighting a good fight, considering they were taken off guard… but this is not a militaristic world. You were in a safe and unreachable part of the Angelor Republic, far from the fringes. Unfortunately, your spatial position led to defenses that were not prepared for the latest advances in Dyson technology.”

The lights behind Zamona shifted, creating a holographic screen that revealed a star chart. As the Emperor’s Herald spoke, a sequence of stars were circled, and lines drawn between the circled stars.

“Harnessing the power of several specific stars at several specific star systems, our emperor was able to devise an amazing leap in teleportation technology. Long-distance teleportation without a receiving gate precise enough to move an armada far, far beyond where it could go with traditional methods of space travel.”

An arrow zipped from the final star on the chart, the star of the Morcalan system. The arrow arced over a vast stretch of space as the map pulled back enough to reveal the star of the Veskid system.

“Understand that we’ve been playing with the kid gloves on. We don’t want to destroy anything more than we have to. We’re not looking to shake up your lives too much, or for a tribute that would tax your already shaky economy. We don’t want to use up your military and police forces dealing with us when you have local problems to worry about. Instead, I’ve sent a short list with some very, very simple demands to your current leaders. I won’t go into the details about those demands, I’ll let the current management decide how much of that they’re comfortable sharing. For right now, I’d encourage you to let your voices be heard, and let the old order know that Emperor Dyson’s here to stay. And just in case you’re not convinced that we have the follow through, here’s someone who might be able to convince you. You’re on, Ortega.”

The screen split, revealing Captain Ortega standing on a podium, presumably in a different location. Not in his regular Astroguard flight suit, he appeared nearly half a foot taller but with a greater fluidity of movement thanks to the Dyson Empire brig uniforms. He looked at the screen, sighed, and waved to his assumed audience.

“Hello, Veskid! I’m Captain Andrew Ortega of the Astroguard. And, yes, I’m currently the captive of the Dyson Empire. I have been asked to confirm that they do, in fact, have technological and militaristic capabilities that are more than a match for Veskid under typical battle conditions. Their request for surrender is not an unreasonable one.”

On the other side of the screen, Harold Zamona nodded, smiled, and shifted in his seat.

“I have also witnessed strong evidence of possible war crimes being committed. The Dyson Empire employs mind-altering tactics when it comes to building their forces, leading to cybernetically persuaded conscripts. It’s a reprehensible tactic, even if it’s born from a desire to not employ more violent tactics to achieve the same goal.”

Zamona raised a hand as if to interrupt, but let the conversation play out.

“It is with gratitude and, I admit, some degree of trepidation, that the Dyson Empire has chosen a method for waging war which will minimize the loss of life, if resistance continues, to just one. I have agreed to single combat against the Emperor’s Herald, him with any weapons he chooses and me with my confiscated flight suit and weaponry, if the public agrees that this would be preferable to an outright surrender. Should I be victorious, the empire agrees to-”

The screens across Veskid went black.

***

“Just what were you trying to pull, Ortega?” shouted Zamona, crossing the small studio with surprising speed for a person of his size. Ortega shrugged at the nearing behemoth.

“You wanted to cash in on my image as a beaten hero? Fine. That’ll come with a cost though. You actually have to beat me first.”

“You don’t want that,” said Zamona, pointing a massive, gauntlet-obscured finger at the captain. “You really don’t want that. I don’t care if you’ve got your fancy space suit or blasters. You’d be dead so fast that they’d hear about it yesterday. We’re going to go live again, and you’re going to tell people what’s REALLY going to happen here.”

“I think I just did,” said Ortega. “How do you think it’ll help your position if they all see you backing off now? This is a PR move, and you’ll be losing on the PR. What do you say, then? Fight me for Veskid if the public agrees to that. If I lose, move in, set up statues, or do whatever it is that you do when you conquer planets. If I win, then take off and leave this system alone.”

“No,” said Zamona. “No, no, I’m not doing that. You think you’ve got me over a barrel, but you’ve got nothing. Our demands will go to Veskid as planned, and you’ll be confined to tight security until after this system’s completely under our control.”