“You sure picked a great place to head, Gamma,” said Chala, cutting through a branch with her machete.
“It looked close,” he said, wheezing as he followed behind. The pain in his chest was growing sharper instead of staying at the dull and hollow pain he’d been managing with. “And it’s… more or less on the way to the field where I landed. Carmen’s gonna need to get me off the planet eventually.”
“If she survived reentry,” Chala said.
“I don’t think she’ll be coming down on an actual asteroid, I think she’s gonna get a ship… Hope she hasn’t already landed, honestly. Hope she’s not too worried about me…”
“I think she’ll have other things to worry about, if you’re anything to go by,” she said. “How’re you holding up back there?”
Zack coughed and waved his hand dismissively. Chala stopped and looked over her shoulder.
“I’m fine,” he said. “I mean… I feel like I’m dying, but apart from that I’ll be good.”
“If you say so,” she said, turning forward again and resuming the walk. “We’re almost there, but between you and me I think that fight with Nectra took a lot out of you, and I’m pretty sure she was holding back.”
Zack didn’t comment, but continued his walk through the ill-defined “trail” that Chala was either discovering or creating as they moved. The scent of the world’s humid air, baking clay, steaming mud, and spongy trees wasn’t comforting. Why was he dying despite being, as far as he could tell, healthy?
Chala reached the edge of a clearing, but paused and held up a hand. The field before her was clear and covered with a crumbly, moss-like vegetation, and a cool wave seemed to be coming from it.
“What?” said Zack.
“We can’t go this way.”
Zack resisted the urge to say that it looked fine to him. He stared into the cool clearing and couldn’t see anything immediately dangerous. He glanced at Chala’s eyes and saw calculated concern, though not immediate worry.
“What’s the problem?”
Suddenly, from the trees above, a figure in a green robe dropped into view between Zack and Chala, an insect-like figure who swept his leg in an arc that immediately dropped Zack to the ground. The trajectory of the leg sweep continued, but Chala was both faster and had more time to react, jumping back and aiming her bow at the figure.
Zack looked up, and stared into the bug-like eyes of Vox Cul-Dar. He jumped up and backward, twisting over Chala’s leg and throwing off her aim before landing. She twisted in place and fired the arrow at the alien, but Vox’s hand was faster, sweeping forward to connect with the projectile and continuing the arc to effectively throw it into a nearby tree.
“The next one goes into you or Gamma,” he said, staring into Chala’s eyes.
“That’s not likely,” she said. “My aim was off that time.”
“Mine wasn’t,” he said, smiling. “And it won’t be. The gift of the tea is fading, but I feel certain of this.”
“Tea?” said Chala, letting the tip of her arrow drop. The humidity seemed to intensify and the heat of the jungle seemed even worse than a moment earlier.
“I wouldn’t push him,” said Zack, shakily massaging his ankle. “I’ve never seen him do that before, but if he can do it once he can do it again.”
“You stay on the ground, Zack,” said Vox. “Until victory is assured, I won’t have you ambling about. You have a talent for misdirection, and opportunities for evasion are always in abundance.”
“Just lucky I guess,” said Zack.
“Don’t sell yourself short, Gamma. These opportunities are everywhere. You just know how to take advantage of them.”
“Get up, Zack,” said Chala, pulling another arrow from her quiver and feeling another wave of heat. “Even sick you were almost a match for Nectra. Between the two of us, odds are still on our side.”
“Before he could get to a knee or pull one of his pistols from his holsters, I would destroy your bow and nullify your ability to assist,” said Vox. “You seem martially sound, so I will do you the honor of not assuming that you would be dead so quickly, but that would follow shortly thereafter.”
“He’s good enough at physical combat that he knows what he’s talkin’ about,” said Zack. “Studied it professionally, and that was before he joined the DMA and got hands-on experience. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, but he probably thinks he’s good enough to gauge how good someone is in a fight before fighting ‘em.”
“I may have overestimated my capabilities before,” he said. “But I’ve got an extra ace in the hole this time.”
Another wave of incredible heat rushed in, heralding the arrival of Igneous, pushing her way through the trees that singed at her touch. Her molten eyes glared with stern determination, and her gravelly fists easily cleared the path.
“You were right,” said Igneous. “They came right here. …Hello, Zack.”
Zack looked at the towering figure of Igneous and his heart sank.
“Well then… rock beats PI. We can’t win this, Chala.”
“So, what, you want me to just stand here while you kill Zack?”
“No,” said Igneous. “Vox and I have a deal. Zack lives.”
“For now,” said Vox. “If you wouldn’t mind, now that my reinforcement has arrived, would you help your friend up? We have a bit of a walk to go, and Gamma looks like he’s in no shape for it. Then again, neither is Igneous with how long it took her to arrive. She should bring up the rear to keep an eye on you two.”