Category Archives: Astroguard

Episode 117: Morcalan Morse

ANY WORD FROM THE CAPTAIN

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

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

NO

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

JUST RETURNED FROM ANOTHER DOCTOR DEBRIEFING

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

CAPTAIN GONE FOR TEN MINUTES

Ortega nodded and tapped his reply.

ANOTHER ESCAPE ATTEMPT

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

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

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

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

WHICH DOCTOR

DOCTOR SILAS ROGERS

SOUL SURVIVOR IS EASIER TO TAP

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

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

UNDERSTOOD

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

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

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

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

AGREED

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Episode 100: Jungle Jaunt

The village was designed like a fort, with an outer wall made of sharp, interlocking trees and massive boulders. Zack assumed they were the remains of trees, at least; they looked less like the tree he’d used as a bridge and more like the trees he’d hidden inside to escape the Haktorash with Chala, but they were much larger and darker. The distant sounds of chirps, hisses and trills from Sthenites grew nearer as they approached the city, but Zack was sure that they were deceptive. He might have imagined the motionless guards in the bushes, but he doubted it. Chala didn’t wait long enough for him to take second looks, though, so he couldn’t be sure.

“I need to come back out here for a casual walk,” he said. “Figure out where everything is.”

“You don’t want to do that,” Chala said, stepping out of the tree line and approaching the wall, moving quickly over the red soil. Zack saw the fastest flicker of a serpentine head peaking over the wall as they left the jungle. He took a quick look back at the foliage.

“Need more yellow in my trench coat,” he said.

“What’s that?”

Zack started to repeat himself, but two massive boulders began to roll to the side. Giant sthenites, with orange scales and scarlet feathers, coiled into view, creating a titanic gate. Zack stopped walking and watched the massive snakes, each easily half as tall as the wall itself. Chala looked over her shoulder.

“Tourist.”

***

Captain Ortega watched the three researchers carefully. Two of them pushed a small trolley that carried a crate, a crate from Captain Calen’s Scuttler. Ortega clenched his jaw at the sight of it. He didn’t know what was happening to Calen and Trell yet, but knew that he wouldn’t want to be the person telling them that the Dyson Empire had plundered their ship.

He also prayed that no one ever found the frozen goblet she kept hidden away.

“Thanks for helping us out today,” said one of the researchers, a blond-haired man in a white contamination suit. “It’s amazing to have someone with your experience helping us out.”

“I didn’t have many options,” said Ortega. “My primary mission is to keep Doctor Rogers contained while I take him back to the Astroguard. Your would-be Emperor may not permit the second part of that mission, but I’ll definitely help with the first, Doctor…?”

“Williams, Gregor Williams. These are Doctor Amelia Degnan and Doctor Clarence Carnegie.”

“We’ve looked over all of your recommendations for waking Doctor Rogers,” said Doctor Carnegie. “We have everything prepared to reactivate his systems.”

“If you have any other recommendations during the procedure, feel free to let us know,” said Doctor Degnan. “We understand that a rigid set of guidelines would have potential for manipulation by someone with this degree of intelligence, so if any potential for danger exists as the situation unfolds, please inform us and we’ll adjust the procedure.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Ortega. “It’s a relief to not have someone being unreasonable about this kind of thing.”

“We work to understand new or alien technologies, and Doctor Rogers’ robotic body counts,” said Doctor Degnan. “Your expertise with his criminal activities, while not technological, is comprehensive and makes you the leading expert in the dangers that he represents. Shall we begin?”

“Whenever you’re ready,” said Ortega. His adrenaline had been slowly rising since they entered the room. All he needed was an opening after Doctor Rogers came back to life, an open door to the lab after Rogers was aware of what was happening. The researchers appeared willing to follow his instructions… could he push his luck far enough to make them take Rogers’ helmet out of the room?

Doctor Carnegie went to a hydromill installed on the far side of the room. Ortega assumed that it wasn’t connected to this vessel’s primary water supplies, and if he hadn’t been hoping for some easy way for Doctor Rogers to escape he would make sure it was the case before the experiment started.

Doctor Degnan moved to a control panel, one that would allow her to manipulate the flow of water from the hydromill and collect any unexpected data. She also activated a view screen, and Harold Zamona’s towering figure appeared on the wall, overseeing the situation. Ortega knew that it didn’t actually change his situation, but Zamona’s presence did make the room more tense.

“When you’re ready, Doctor Williams,” said Doctor Degnan.

Doctor Williams nodded and approached the storage crate on the research platform in the center of the room. He carefully broke the crate’s vacuum seal and removed the lid. Gently, almost reverently, he reached into the crate and pulled out the large, oblong dome that rested within.

“Preparing the hydromill transfer,” said Williams, reaching for a hose at his platform.

“Wait,” said Ortega. “That’s not-”

“Hydromill active,” said Doctor Carnegie.

“Begin the hydration.”

“Wait!” said Ortega.

The three researchers froze, each watching Captain Ortega carefully.

“You really don’t…” he started, words failing him.

“Captain Ortega, what’s wrong?” asked Doctor Carnegie. “Is there any danger?”

“Is… no. No, there’s no danger.”

“Then can we get back to the experiment?” asked Doctor Degnan.

“No point,” said Captain Ortega. “That’s not Rogers’ head.”

The three researchers all slowly turned to look at the glass dome in Doctor Williams’ hand. In his view screen, Zamona cradled his head for a moment before reaching for the screen controls, deactivating his end of the feed.

“Are you sure?” asked Doctor Williams.

“Well, look at it,” he said. “It looks like the top of a fancy water cooler.”

“I… suppose it might…” said Doctor Degnan.

“It looks like the one attached to the hydromill.”

Doctor Carnegie looked to his left at the hydromill’s beverage dispenser and took a surprised step back. Captain Ortega looked between the three researchers.

“So… if by some chance all those crates at your feet have spare hydromill parts in them instead of pieces of Doctor Rogers… where is he?”

***

Pilot Tan finished the modifications to his vessel’s Hydromill, connecting the “water cooler” more directly to the ship’s primary functions as per the instructions that had been echoing in the back of his head since landing at Xol’s ship. The Soul Survivor’s Plan A had been thwarted by Captain Ortega, and the restorative properties of Ortega’s helmet had muted the instructions long enough for Tan to miss the window on Plan B, brilliant though that plan would have been. Plan C had been perfect to implement when the echoes of the Soul Survivor’s manipulated Cypulchral Signal came back to his mind.

Tan had almost failed in his duties as a sleeper agent after he reawakened, too. The plan had suggested taking use of the ‘Tight Schedule’ trouble phrase, but had also been based on the belief that Tan wouldn’t have the chance or need to enact that protocol until later. Tan should have known to use the different phrase… but in the end, everything worked out.

The hydromill kicked into overdrive and bubbles began to surge furiously inside the dome that represented the Soul Survivor’s head, now attached to the machinery in Tan’s ship. After a few moments, the room’s communication channels kicked in.

“Excellent work, Tan,” said the familiar, sonorous tenor. “I didn’t know if my posthypnotic commands would survive beyond the purging that Ortega’s helmet would provide.”

“They did,” said Tan. “I can’t say that I liked selling him up the river like that, and technically this action makes me a traitor to the Dyson Empire, but it’s the least I could do to help you out.”

“Of course,” said The Soul Survivor. “Oh, these ship readings are delightful. We made it to the Veskid System this quickly? Amazing… Tan, you and I have much to discuss.”

Much earlier, on another world…

“My recommendation is Ravelar,” said Harold Zamona, looking over the screen built into the glass of the table. “We’ll be hard to track once we’re there, and we’re already difficult to track so we might be gone entirely, especially if the trip is financed in my name.”

“Ugh, there?” said Zack.

“Don’t want to go to Ravelar?”

“It’ll be so humid,” said Zack. “Horrible for my usual wardrobe. I decided a long time ago that I’d never be caught dead in a jungle on jobs like these, but I suppose just once wouldn’t kill me.”

“Most of the jungles are all underground, though,” said Sister Barris, tapping the table to read more information on the world. “There’s no real BristleCorp presence, too, and that could help us.”

“It’s got no DMA either, and police who look the other way a little too easily,” said Zack. “Don’t get me wrong, a pinch of corruption in a police force can do a lot of good, especially for jobs like this, but get too much and we’ll be sold to the highest bidder minutes after we land with no DMA there to protect us.”

“You really think it’ll be that bad?” asked Azar, trying to look around the three people on his payroll.

“I think it’s a risk,” said Zack.

“Zack is just letting us know about the worst case scenario,” said Harold.

“And letting you know that the worst case scenario isn’t unlikely,” said Zack. “There’s a lot of crime there. Most of the planet’s run by a Pyrhian mob boss named Murk. He causes a lot of problems for the DMA on Veskid, and that’s where we’re strongest. Not sure I want to see him running unchecked.”

“He’ll be checked by me,” said Harold.

“Raw strength might not be what we want in a place like this,” said Barris. “Subtlety is essential here, and the tourism industry, sketchy though it is, is designed for rich people who don’t want questions asked.”

“The hotels do look nice,” said Azar. “I think I could enjoy it there. For a while at least.”

“All right,” said Zack. “Let’s assume you go there. Harold, you’d be along for security?”

“Naturally.”

“And I’d stay here to work on legal action against BristleCorp,” said Barris. “They’ve clearly put an assassination order onto you, Azar, and while a case against them will be hard, laying the early groundwork without them catching on shouldn’t present an overabundance of difficulties.”

“Assuming they don’t already plan on us doing something like that,” said Zack. “This is a new situation, but they’re not stupid. And it’s not like there’s a single person you can trick or bump off to make this work. You can’t shoot a corporation.”

“Is that Faulkner?” asked Harold.

“What? No, it’s reality,” said Zack. “Barris, you can probably get the preliminaries set up, but they’ve likely already taken steps to cut any paper trails to link them to the assassination attempts.”

“Isn’t that what you’re for?” asked Harold. “Find the dirt on them. Reconnect the paper trails, find evidence that proves that only they would have the resources to coordinate this kind of attack on an individual, and prove that they’re the only one with the motive.”

“Motive’s the hard part, actually,” said Zack. “Pettiness is hard to prove for a corporation since they’re usually more concerned with making money than getting revenge for lost money, the actions of individuals within a company notwithstanding. But yes, I’ll be doing a bit of that. It’ll just be tricky to arrange that kind of investigation from Ravelar.”

“Why’re you going to be in Ravelar?” asked Harold. “I’ll be there. Don’t think I can handle anything that comes our way?”

Zack tapped the table and stared at Harold.

“I just… assumed I’d be there as well,” said Zack. “But I suppose you and Azar can be there by yourselves. Taking the resort vacation spots all for yourself.”

“Just how it turned out with our skill sets,” said Harold, smiling.

“Right,” said Zack. “Barris stays here, Harold and Azar can live it up in Ravelar, and I’ll go between both places while researching.”

“Do we need that kind of attention drawn to you, Zack?” asked Barris. “Traveling is noticeable, and Harold already tracked you down once. Someone else might do it again.”

“Maybe,” said Zack, watching the former wrestler carefully. “But I’ll feel better if I can keep an eye on the situation from both sides. Just in case.”

Episode 95: Wraithstrike

The explosion was little more than a flash grenade, a special effects prop made from emergency flares, fuel, and some spare parts to add an electrical kick. As Captain Calen released her Scuttler’s hold on Tan’s vessel, it provided absolutely nothing to the backwards drift that allowed the two ships to separate, appearing from a distance to resemble a celestial arthropod releasing an unfinished meal. It looked impressive, though.

***

“As you can see, I’ve almost finished the repairs,” said Tan. “The Morcalan vessel didn’t latch on as firmly as it might’ve. It’s an inefficient attack, one that almost requires the assistance of the other ship to pull off.”

Ensign Trell narrowed her eyes and shook her energy blaster in a manner that fell just shy of threatening. Captain Ortega smiled, getting the sense that Trell was finally growing to the point where she could tolerate Tan’s quirks. Commander Sanchez saw neither of them as she stared from the view screen.

“I see definite improvement,” she said. “The repair team is near enough, though. Do you believe you can truly finish the work on your own? Every ship’s participation is useful for making the initial strike more debilitating to our enemies.”

“I think it’s better to not waste their time,” said Tan. “If we get them back to the ideal position in our formation to do the most good for the rest of the fleet, it’ll help us. We’ve got a tight schedule, after all. I might be late to the party but I’ll definitely be there before the first wave of attack is over.”

Trell blinked. Something seemed off about their prisoner’s comment. She couldn’t say what it was, but the flow of conversation seemed wrong, and it gave her a sense of deja vu, as if she’d heard this conversation before.

“Very well,” said Commander Sanchez. “I expect you to be not just up and running, but combat ready in time for the strike. I’ll be altering your position to be in the final rush of fighters during our first wave instead of the third. That should help to accommodate any unexpected issues you have during your final repairs.”

“Understood, Commander,” said Tan.

“Hail Dyson.”

“Hail Dyson.”

The screen flickered off and Tan breathed a sigh of relief.

“Nice work,” said Ortega. “I think we’re just about in the clear to live through this.”

“Right,” said Tan. “What’ll you do now?”

“Hadn’t thought that far ahead,” said Ortega. “Trell, do you think Calen would be amenable to flying the Scuttler by Veskid? I could probably take advantage of their throughwave network to get a message to Astroguard Command. They couldn’t speak back to us easily, but it could let them know more about the nature of the Dyson threat and get them ready to respond.”

“Probably not,” said Trell, watching the pilot carefully. “But it never hurts to ask.”

***

Captain Calen paced from the Scuttler’s miniature galley back to the bridge. She trusted Ensign Trell to keep the prisoner on task, and to keep Captain Ortega from intervening unnecessarily. She had grown wary when the Dyson Empire’s repair vessel drew near, but it didn’t do more than get close enough to scan Tan’s ship for repairs.

She reached the door that led back onto the bridge, and paused at the sight of an unusual system message flashing at Trell’s station. She started to approach it, but when she stepped through the archway she saw the two black-clad soldiers standing on either side of her, pressed up against the wall to avoid visual contact until it was too late.

Their uniforms were cybernetic stealth suits, topped with observation crowns that both increased their vision and obscured their faces. It gave them the appearance of having six eyes, as three lenses could rotate into position for either eye to give different visual effects depending on what the environment called for. The suits were standard fare, but tweaked with the strange scientific flourishes that Calen was beginning to recognize as the Dyson Empire’s handiwork. The combination of unusual head-gear and cybernetic touches on the body gave the impression of an alien skeleton or shadowy mutant insect’s exoskeletal husk.

They had the undeniable advantage of position, equipment, and surprise, and if their prey had not been Captain Calen the attack would have worked flawlessly. Calen’s wild reaction allowed her to grab the arm of one of the intruders as it lifted a green neural pulse pistol, twisting it to the side to cause the weapon to fire harmlessly into the other side of the room. She continued the arm twist to spin the victim behind her, just in time for the second pistol to fire, striking the intruder and causing an instant loss of consciousness. She tossed the dead weight into her second attacker, but he jumped to the side.

“Spies and saboteurs!” she shouted. “You waste an ambush and must face me alone. Who trained you to throw away advantages like that? By the dread engines of the Farthest Fleet, you’ll suffer at my hand and be sent back to your precious emperor as the secondary payload of a bone missile!”

The intruder didn’t respond but instead fired again. Calen was already moving, easily sidestepping the blast before he pulled the trigger. She grabbed his weapon, pulled it from his hand, and lowered it at the surprised assailant.

“You’ve no training,” she said. “No training, no advantage, and no hope. I’ll give you your last words, because after this insult to the concept of weaponry puts you to sleep I’ll ensure that you never wake again!”

The third assailant, stepped out of the hallway, and fired at Calen. She never saw the attack, and spasmed furiously. She stilled suddenly and for a surreal moment it seemed as if she remained conscious through an act of furious will. She toppled forward an instant later, and the two remaining intruders breathed a sigh of relief.

“Wraithstrike Team Delta reporting full insertion,” said the third intruder as the broadcast channel opened through his suit. “Scatterport-glitch occurred resulting in one casualty, non-lethal. Vessel secured.”

“Copy that, Wraithstrike Delta,” said the voice of Commander Sanchez. “Await further instructions.”

Episode 93: Tight Schedule

“We’re glad you’ve been able to make repairs,” said the Dyson Forces Commander on the other side of the view screen, holding her hand to her temple. “However, protocol dictates that your ship will need an entire shakedown. Particularly with the Morcalan vessel affixed to it.”

“Understood, Commander Sanchez,” said Pilot Tan, nodding to the screen. “I do believe that I’ll be able to remove the Scuttler myself, though, and until I do that docking won’t be an option. You’d have to spend the time and resources to have a crew physically come over here, and that’ll delay both my schedule and that of the repair crew. I understand that we’re on a tight schedule.”

“Are we?”

“Super tight,” said Tan. “Incredibly tight. That was how I interpreted The Herald’s last instructions from Emperor Dyson, at least. We’re in a non-consecutive region of space, and most of our advantage comes from careful timing and the element of surprise.”

Commander Sanchez tapped a finger on the side of her head.

“This is irregular, but you’re right about the tight schedule. Given the circumstances… I’ll still be sending a repair ship your way, but work on them yourself to the best of your ability. The repair ship should be able to get to you before our operation in Veskid begins, but if you can get things finished before help arrives it’ll reflect well on you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Hail Dyson,” she said, saluting to the camera.

“Hail Dyson,” said Tan, returning the salute. The feed went dark.

Ensign Trell lowered her energy blaster and reactivated its safety mechanism while Ortega exhaled.

“Nice work, Tan,” he said. “I was worried for a minute.”

“We’re not safe yet,” said Trell. “We’ve still got to make enough of a change to the ship to make it look like repairs are progressing. We may also need to cause some superficial damage that will better reflect the kinds of issues that you reported, Tan.”

“Sorry,” he said. “It was all I could think of for some of the questions she was asking.”

“Honestly, I think I would’ve told them more or less the same things. You didn’t have a lot to work with. You moved us out of the frying pan and into a different pan a little closer to the oven’s controls.”

“So, the first step should be removing the Scuttler?” asked Ortega. “Just calling Calen and asking her to unhook would probably be too fast. How long should we wait to make it believable that one person could fix that kind of issue?”

“Two hours, which is too long,” said Trell. “I’m willing to bet that there’s not a lot of data on the lesser known functions of Morcalan specialty vessels, though. We might be able to make twenty minutes believable if we simulate a controlled explosion near some of the pincers. We can even claim that Tan did it to speed up his work.”

“Good plan,” said Ortega. “Up for some more acting in a bit, Tan?”

“If I need to,” he said. “Still don’t feel great about this.”

“Must be rough, keeping your friends out there from blasting you to death,” said Trell. “We’ll keep the contact minimal, so you won’t need to do it often. We’ll keep working here, and with luck the Dyson Empire won’t know we’re coming for them until it’s too late.”

***

“He wasn’t wrong,” said Harold Zamona. “We are, as he says, on a Tight Schedule.”

“He was very emphatic, sir,” said Commander Sanchez, speaking to Zamona through her view screen. “He wanted that point to be made, and he made it. It could be nothing, but I felt it best to inform you.”

“Yes,” said Zamona, steepling his gauntlet-bound hands. “Tight Schedule isn’t the trouble phrase until tomorrow. It should be Random Sensor Glitch today. Still… you were right to call me.”

“One of my officers suggests that he might be operating with local time instead of Dyson Mean Time. It would account for the error. As would a simple mistake when memorizing trouble phrases.”

“It might,” said Zamona. “Prepare to send your repair team as promised, but inform them that I will send some specialists along for the job, Commander.”

“Understood, Herald.”

Episode 88: Spacewalk

“Reactor back online, Captain,” said Ensign Trell, watching the green and yellow glow from behind the fighter-ship’s protective field. “All reactor elements deneutralized.”

“Wonderful,” said Captain Calen. “I’ll go dark. Your power signature will stand against stricter analysis.”

“It won’t do anything for the… ‘window problem,’ though.”

“No,” said Calen. “We’re still vulnerable to visual inspection. My last trace indicated that a few other vessels were drawing nearer. Once your systems are active, you’ll likely have hailing frequencies waiting for you. Captain Ortega and… our friend are on their way back.”

***

“She’s going to kill me,” said Tan, his voice coming through Ortega’s communicator. With a little effort, it had been possible for Ortega and Calen to make a better spacesuit for Tan to wear. At first Calen hadn’t wanted to waste the time or effort, but Ortega pointed out that the previous suit had only barely worked thanks to the insulating properties within the Cypulchral Cloud. Tan’s survival was linked to theirs, and as such Calen eventually relented.

With a better suit, though still a rudimentary one, Pilot Tan had been released into space with Ortega there to guide him back to his own ship or, as Calen had put it, to ‘ward against treachery.’ Captain Ortega felt that Calen’s expectations of subterfuge were warranted for once. Tan had indicated no obvious hostility toward them, but he definitely maintained some degree of loyalty to the Dyson Empire. Besides, Tan’s suit didn’t have magnetic boots to make the walk easier, so he’d need the help.

“She may,” said Ortega, slowly stepping from the edge of the Scuttler to the edge of Tan’s vessel. “She hasn’t yet, though. I do think that if you keep helping us, she won’t feel the need. She’s violent, but I don’t think she’s murderous.”

“How well do you know her?”

“I met her about half a day before I met you.”

“You two go way back, then.”

“Ages. All kidding aside, it’s true that Morcalans are sincere when they threaten murder, but I’ll be around to make sure that doesn’t happen. If you just follow through with the plan, you should be fine.”

“So that makes you the good cop to her bad cop in this ploy to make me turn traitor?”

“That’s how it’s turned out,” said Ortega. “The difference, though, is that Calen and I aren’t on the same team, and most good cops are working with the bad cops. It’s not an act. Or at least… not as much of an act as it should be. I do approve of this operation, but I don’t approve of Calen’s tactics, or her alternate plans. She’s been a good host, though, letting me wander about when a different captain might have just tossed me into the brig.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is that you can reason with her as long as you meet her midway. Before the threat of the Dyson Empire became so apparent, my priority had been getting back to the Astroguard with Doctor Rogers in tow.”

“The Soul Survivor?”

“His name is Doctor Silas Rogers. But yes, him.”

“Are you sure?”

“About what?”

“His name?”

“Of course,” said Ortega, stepping around a protrusion of the outer hull as they neared the airlock. “Events from his personal accounts of the disaster match known details about himself from before the incident.”

“What if he was just a robot who got confused? A robot who happened to know a lot about Doctor Rogers?”

“No evidence suggests that to be the case,” said Ortega. “Even if that was the case, though, it wouldn’t change how Rogers saw himself.”

Ortega swung his leg into the airlock with a practiced step, grabbed Tan’s hand, and helped Tan to step through. He firmly set his feet on what would soon become “down” once the airlock began its cycling process, something that happened quickly enough to make him think that Trell was eager. The door behind them closed, and air began to filter into the small chamber.

“Doesn’t he see himself as the Soul Survivor, though? The mental instructions from when he brainwashed us all were pretty clear on that part.”

“Valid point,” said Ortega. “Odds are good that that’s simply a delusion, though, since he still remembers his old life. Now… let’s get you inside.”

As if on cue, gravity kicked in and Tan stumbled. Ortega was prepared to catch him and prevented it from turning into a prat fall on the floor.

“You must do a lot of this,” said Tan.

“Not as much as you’d think. I get the sense that you were rushed through your training. Don’t worry, it doesn’t take too long to get your space legs.”

The door in front of them clanged, shook visibly, and spiraled open to reveal Ensign Trell.

“Just in time,” she said. “The messages were starting to get threatening. We need you in the communicator’s chair, right now.”

She grabbed Tan’s arm and pulled him down the hall. Ortega jumped into place a step behind them. The ship had more interior space than the weaponry-laden Scuttler, but it was still a short run before reaching the “bridge”, a narrow area that barely qualified as more than a cockpit. Trell pushed him into the chair, stepped to the side, and pulled out her laser blaster.

“What’s that for?” asked Tan.

“Incentive not to double cross us, prisoner,” said Trell. “Don’t worry, I won’t need it if you play along.”

Episode 85: Triangulated Progress

Carmen stopped mentally prodding her asteroid and took a deep breath.

“Okay, we’re cool. I don’t think we’ll be crashing today.”

“That would’ve made an amazing news story, though,” said Vince, releasing his mental hold on the asteroid as well. “I can just see the headlines. ‘Flashman and Shift Missing on Mandrake: Racers Presumed Dead After Nebula Cup Qualifier.’”

“I think you got our names backward on that one. No way I’d get second billing to you.”

“They’re going alphabetically,” said Vince. He looked up from the rocky terrain of the asteroid and saw the comforting expanse of stars overhead. He knew that if they stood on the opposite side of the asteroid they’d see Mandrake filling the sky, and that its toxic rain clouds and vast jungles might just be discernible from this altitude. Instead, he saw the comforting image of three other asteroids, one being his own.

“Now we’ve just gotta get me back to my ride,” he said.

“Thanks again,” said Carmen. “Probably could’ve gotten myself out of the planet’s pull without help, of course, but I’d be having a mondo headache right now. One for the history books.”

Their headsets chimed, each with a tone that let them know that Xorn’Tal was trying to speak. They’d cut off the headsets to minimize distractions while tugging Carmen’s asteroid out of its fall to Mandrake, but now that they were done Xorn’Tal had something to say.

“Hope he’s not been waiting long,” said Vince as they activated their comm sets.

“What’s up, Xorn’Tal?” asked Carmen.

“Officials: nearing,” said the plant creature’s synthesized voice.

“Good,” said Vince. “We can show them that we caught the Phantom Matador’s asteroid.”

“But the Matador got away,” said Carmen, glumly. “That… stupid bat.”

“Shangmere,” said Vince. “I don’t think they like being called bats.”

“Right, sorry,” said Carmen. “I’m just… we had him. The Phantom Matador was unconscious, on my asteroid, and officials were minutes away, and then that stowaway grabs him and leaps for Mandrake.”

“Look at the bright side,” said Vince. “He probably burned up in entry.”

“Right, but now we’ll never know who he was,” said Carmen. “I wanted him in jail. This’ll just give him a mysterious exit without knowing who he is. Watch, five years from now the racing federation’ll probably hire someone to be the new Phantom Matador and mess with racers again.”

“Maybe that’s what they did this time,” said Vince.

“I doubt it. The suits aren’t that creative.”

“Other concern: plasma report,” said Xorn’Tal.

“Plasma report?” asked Vince.

“Edge of system: racers/stragglers: watched. Sensors: long-range: energy signature: massive. Plasma storm: causeless.”

“I’m sure it’ll be on the news when we get back to Veskid tonight,” said Carmen.

“Hey, at least your friend’s jump went well,” said Vince. “You know. Eventually.”

“Right,” said Carmen. “I’ll need to pick him up eventually. You guys are still good not mentioning him, right?”

“Secret: safe.”

“Absolutely,” said Vince. “Gotta help out our fellow adrenaline junkies.”

***

Zack nervously watched the nearing ground, reflexively waving his arms even though he knew that the parachute would keep him safe. True to Carmen’s word, the robotic elements of the parachute were steering him toward a clearing, but the nearby jungle still loomed ominously.

He took a deep breath and braced for impact as he dropped the last dozen feet, but was surprised by the sudden jet of compressed air released by the parachute, providing some extra thrust to make the final moments of descent that much slower. The extra efficiency caused Zack to over-correct, and trip on his feet as he reached the ground.

He brought his arms up to keep his face from colliding with the ground. Just before he could get his bearings, the parachute fell as well, covering him. Already worried about the potential for jungle insects, Zack thrashed madly beneath the parachute, trying to extricate himself.

From the tree line, Chala watched him carefully, an arrow set in her bow. The newcomer certainly didn’t seem like the standard poacher, but he still had to leave.

***

Captain Ortega and Ensign Trell looked out the window of their dead ship, and witnessed the vast array of Dyson Empire vessels around them.

“This is… unexpected,” said Trell.

“Where are we?” asked Ortega. “I don’t recognize any of those stars. Was… was this a projected teleport? Can Dyson teleport ships? Some sort of jump drive?”

“It seems so,” said Trell. “But… I know it’s folly to try to recognize constellations from a variable position within a system, but I’ve crossed Morcalan space many, many times… something looks wrong about that.”

“Are you there?” crackled Trell’s communicator.

“Captain?” said Trell. “Captain, you made it with us?”

“It seems so,” said Captain Calen from within her Scuttler. “We seem to be in a mobile hornet’s nest, Trell… oh, the delicious targets… attacking now would be suicide, of course, we mustn’t attack yet…”

Ortega breathed a sigh of relief. Trell glared at him.

“I think Captain Ortega expected you to try to blast your way to victory,” Trell said.

“The thought crossed my mind,” said Calen. “Had we a dozen vessels I probably would, for victory then would be assured. But as it is now… we have a chance that we mustn’t squander. We’re in a dire situation, though, one that I’ve not yet solved.”

“And what’s that,” asked Ortega.

“How long until some ship captain looks out its window and realizes that we’re not a single vessel, but a depowered Dyson fighter being clutched in the talons of a powered Morcallan scuttler?”

A tense moment of silence filled the chamber.

“I’ll get to work on those reactor repairs, Captain,” said Trell.

“See that you do.”

Episode 84: Virellium Wave

“The system definitely has a numeric pad to the right of the pilot’s terminal, just like you describe, Captain,” said Ensign Trell, speaking into her communicator.

Captain Ortega looked at the console curiously, furrowing his brow.

“Input the numbers, then,” said Calen from the other side of the communicator. “Let’s not keep our dear pilot from his duty a moment longer.”

“Hang on a second,” said Ortega. “I was all over these computers earlier… that pad doesn’t do anything.”

“That pad is standard on most terminals like this,” said Trell.

“I know,” said Ortega. “That’s why I tried using it. I had to settle for the other numeric input along the top of the controls when the pad didn’t work.”

“You probably just had the number lock function disengaged.”

Ortega looked over the console more carefully.

“The button for that isn’t here,” he said. “I couldn’t engage or disengage it.”

Trell looked over the controls carefully before nodding her head.

“Captain, he’s right,” said Trell.

“What does that mean, then?” asked Calen.

“Stand by,” said Trell, kneeling beneath the console and removing a panel. Ortega prepared for a lengthy investigation, but was startled by a surprised gasp.

“There’s definitely a change here,” said Trell. “Definitely not standard.”

“What do you see?” he asked.

“It’s a rerouting,” she said. “Ordinarily I’d be spending minutes looking over the circuitry, but there’s a secondary circuit board here, it looks like it’s fed directly into the numeric pad. It also looks like there’s some rudimentary broadcasting components, probably capable of generating a low-power signal over a short distance.”

“Curious,” said Ortega.

Trell pushed her way out of the panel, smiling a more genuine smile than Ortega had ever seen. He stepped back so that she could stand up.

“One last thing,” she said. “You’re going to like this, Captain. The secondary circuity board that plugs directly into the numeric pad? It’s using the Phoenix Circuitry. The same style of circuits and materials used in this ship’s alternate systems are definitely being used in that one board. I think we’ve just found the Phoenix Circuit’s user interface.”

Ortega smiled and almost confirmed that he did, in fact, like the information, before he heard Calen’s low, rattling laughter from the other side of the communicator. He wasn’t the captain she’d been speaking to.

“That is delightful, Trell,” she said, amid triumphant chortles. “Hear me now: we’ve uncovered the weakness of Dyson’s impregnable defenses, the weakness that will lead to our final victory. I don’t know how, but this is the key to the Vaults of Vengeance. Input the numbers, Trell. Input the numbers and reveal the first true treasure to be pulled from the Cypulchral Cloud!”

Trell eagerly tapped Tan’s sequence of numbers into the panel. Quickly, and thankfully, the chiming alarm finally, finally stopped, prompting a relieved sigh from both Trell and Ortega. For a moment nothing happened, leaving the room in silence and stillness. Then, one of the screens over the console activated.

LAST COMMAND: 00:10:48:48

VIRELLIUM WAVE ACTIVATION: -00:01:12:12

“Virellium wave?” asked Ortega. “That seems… unlikely.”

“All Virellium functions through a wave,” said Trell. “Allegedly, at least. Morcalla’s never had much to work with. Most people talk about it like it’s a form of matter, but it’s actually a form of force energy, like in most energy weapons.”

“I know,” said Ortega. “The rarity’s why it seems unlikely, though, not that Virellium would have a wave.”

“It may be a small wave,” said Trell. “It wouldn’t require much to cover a system with a low-effect or no-effect field.”

“What are you two blathering about?” said Ortega over the communication channel.

“The numbers activated a console, Captain. It’s registering a command that came through almost eleven hours ago, and saying that something called a Virellium wave will activate in… one hour, eleven minutes, and twenty-nine seconds.”

“Oh, that’s intriguing,” said Calen. “For the record, sensors are indicating that the Phoenix Circuitry you’ve uncovered is beginning to activate. It’s… glowing. Under certain scan images you even look like a bird’s skeleton, surrounded by a halo. It’s quite poetic, I think. These are the ashes from which Morcala will rise.”

“We need to die first, Captain,” said Trell. “I don’t think we’ve hit that point yet.”

“Agreed,” said Calen. “But it’s nice to know there’s an option.”

“I think you two are overextending and mixing the metaphor a little,” said Ortega. “Either way, it looks like we’ve got an hour to prepare for… something. This is probably a signal that’s been sent to the entire Dyson fleet, or at least a large subset of them. This may allow us to figure out what their next move is, but… if it requires the ship’s other features to function, we may be out of luck since we’ve not had time to repair the ship’s reactor since the scuttler’s Neutrino Load neutralized it. Can we repair the reactor in an hour?”

“If we’re lucky,” said Trell. “Probably not, though.”

“Work on getting it up and running,” said Calen. “If we can reactivate Tan’s vessel without it blowing up on us, it will be more useful. Assuming you’ll need more than an hour, though… if I activated the scuttler’s retrieval functionality, I think I would be within the field of energy that the Phoenix Circuitry is activating. Trell, can you calculate an appropriate point of attachment that won’t puncture the circuitry itself? Ordinarily I wouldn’t be concerned, but we may be able to let the scuttler’s engines guide Tan’s fighter, albeit clumsily.”

“Brilliant plan, Captain,” said Trell. “I’ll have that calculated in minutes.”

“Wait, what’s happening?” asked Ortega.

“The scuttler’s about to engage in some actual scuttling,” said Trell. “Scuttlers rarely use this function these days… and almost only use them to tear another ship apart in combat when it comes up… but due to the slow precision required, it’s an awkward combat maneuver, and has more use as a means for tugging deactivated ships around.”

***

Twenty minutes later, Captain Calen input Ensign Trell’s calculations. The scuttler closed in on Tan’s fighter vessel, and activated twelve drill-like lasers. It slowly drifted toward the fighter, matching its velocity and spin, and carefully punctured areas of the hull that would be more or less unimportant for the near future. As the laser drills twisted to more accurately cut into the ship, the field of phoenix circuitry energy enveloped the scuttler entirely.

Once the drills cut their holes, the beams stopped. Twelve metallic pincers dug into the side of the fighter, like a tick attaching to an animal. Usually a scuttler would flex, unflex, and twist its pincers at this point, causing it to shred and bring down most enemy ships, but Calen belayed that protocol before it became an issue.

“We have connection,” said Calen. “I think we’re good to go.”

“Understood, Captain,” said Trell, from the other side of the communicator. “I’ll begin the repairs to the reactor now. With luck it should be back online in two hours.”

“Hopefully we won’t need it before then,” said Calen, leaning back in her chair. “Keep me updated.”

Calen felt good for the first time since hearing Admiral Cresh’s announcement that Morcala was surrendering. She didn’t know what would be happening when the countdown ended, but she was certain that it was the next step to victory, and the next chapter in her glorious career.

***

Emperor Dyson steepled his fingers and smiled as he read the latest report. The Morcalan resistance was staying strong, but it was settling into a predictable pattern. They were causing damage… but it was all superficial and easily repairable. He felt they were probably enjoying the chance to play act as members of a resistance fighting against an oppressive regime. It was an annoyance, but as long as he didn’t try to stamp them out entirely, their acting could be a powerful asset.

The door to his throne room opened, and Harold Zamona crouched to make sure that he could enter without bumping his head. It was the closest that Harold ever came to bowing. Dyson was always cheered by Zamona’s willingness to be on equal terms with him.

“We are ready, sire,” said Zamona. “We can move on. Enough troops will be staying behind to keep up the defenses while the attack continues.”

“Wonderful,” said Dyson. “You know, it occurs to me that with the gathered energy we’re finally overcoming Alexander’s problem. There will never be an end of worlds to conquer, at least not in my lifetime.”

“Don’t spread yourself too thin,” said Zamona. “The ancient Romans had their conquered slaves whisper that victory is fleeting to their generals, and even that reminder didn’t keep them from collapsing in due time. And besides, conquering these regions is only a fringe benefit for our real job.”

“Of course,” said Dyson. “It is time to begin our primary work. As usual, I imagine that the components of The Emperor’s Eye have a different destination than the fleet?”

“Naturally,” said Zamona, smiling.

“Perfect. Would you care to do the honors?”

The Emperor gestured to the massive red and orange device at the edge of the throne room. Zamona smiled and approached the monolithic machine, opening the deceptively small cover over the circular input device. He reached into his shirt and pulled out the medallion he’d worn ever since entering Dyson’s service. He cracked it open and removed the colorful, curiously hot coin of Virellium energy from within.

He placed the single Virellium coin into the input device before closing it, briefly thinking to the moment of the coin’s acquisition. He pulled a lever at the side of the machine and heard the snaps of electricity from the internal diodes, the rumble of thunder within the crystalline orbs that surrounded the device, and the powerful energy within the coin cascading from the machine as it generated a wave that would affect Dyson vessels across the system.

The scent of ionization filled the throne room, and the sensation of a great fire surrounded everyone in all of the ships touched by the wave, Dyson and Harold included. The fire was hot, but strangely without pain…

…and then the moment passed where they ceased to exist…

…and then, in a cloud of plasma, the fleet reappeared at its next system.

“This is strange, folks,” said Mark Matthews, continuing his color commentary. “Long-range scanners keeping tabs on the race’s final stragglers are picking up a huge energy signature just outside the system! Technically out of bounds, but pretty close to the race track. Well, the race began with a party crasher, maybe it’s about to end with another. Just a few minutes before we get a good visual on the far side of Mandrake, though, so I should have news for you on that end soon!”

Episode 83: What Captains Are For

Captain Calen slammed Pilot Tan into Trell’s chair on the bridge. Tan glared up, but remained otherwise silent while Calen tapped instructions into the keyboard.

“Now, we’ll get to the bottom of this one way or the other,” she said. “Whether you’ve been trained well or not, you did successfully pilot a ship into Morcalan space, so you must know basic stellar navigation. Whether you remember anything or not, you did something, so we’re going to sit here until you work out just what it was. I caution you not to tarry long, for while the novelty of the exercise may stay my wrath longer than usual, we’re all in a hurry. However much time we have to act, know that you have less.”

“Threaten me all you like, I don’t have any clue what to do here. This isn’t even laid out like my panel.”

“Tell me how it differs.”

“It’s… okay, it’s mostly the same, but it’s missing a lot of controls.”

“You probably had more functions at your station, as your vessel was meant to be piloted by one person instead of two,” said Calen. “While I pity the Dyson Empire’s inability to properly delegate controls, I have no doubt that even you can work out what does and does not need to happen between the two terminals.”

Tan narrowed his eyes.

“Stop insulting me, okay?”

“When you prove your worth, I shall.”

“You know, if this is how everyone in your society acts, I’m glad the Emperor picked your system to conquer.”

Calen made a fist and pulled back her arm, but froze before carrying through. She shook her head and slowly unclenched her hand.

“You’ll pay for that later,” she said. “We need you now, though, and knocking you out of this chair isn’t a productive use of our time. For your sake if not mine, stop triggering my patriotism. Now… you sat in this chair. You heard the tone. What happened before you reached Morcala?”

Tan looked at the controls and shook his head. After a moment without comment he reached for the controls. He easily moved through the sequence of powering the ship’s engines for forward thrust, and quickly moved through the standard checklist for interstellar flight before pausing and slumping his shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I… don’t know what’s next. Something about navigation… inputting our final destination.”

“You mean your heading?”

“I… don’t think so,” said Tan. “I think our destination’s important.”

“You must keep it in mind, yes,” said Calen. “But it is more important to know your initial heading.”

Tan shrugged and tapped in a general heading that corresponded with the direction Calen’s scuttler was facing.

“That’s it, then,” he said. “Apart from launching and beginning the trip, of course.”

“But what does the signal mean, then?”

“Maybe nothing,” said Tan.

“Stop playing the fool,” said Calen. “What you’ve done so far is standard protocol. This might be a recreation of any launch sequence, not yours.”

“I can’t recreate the situation exactly,” said Tan. “There’s too many differences.”

“Then let’s ramp up the similarities.”

Calen accessed a communications terminal and opened a channel to Tan’s ship. A moment later it chirped when Ensign Trell responded to the hail.

“Captain?” she asked.

“I need a broadcast of the alarm you’re hearing,” said Calen.

“Is this really necessary?” asked Tan.

“Apparently,” said Calen.

Moments later, the strange, repetitive tone from Tan’s ship broadcast through the bridge. Tan shook his head, but his right hand moved to a numeric pad at the side of Trell’s keyboard, and input a string of numbers. Calen watched the numbers flash across the terminal’s display… like a location marker on a stellar cartograph, but too long… before the computer took the data and released the information that the input command meant nothing.

“Sorry,” said Tan. “It’s not jogging my memory at all.”

“Then what are those numbers?”

“Numbers?”

“The digits you just put onto the screen.”

Tan leaned forward and looked at the data, along with the ship’s reaction to it in the command line. He shrugged and turned back to Calen.

“It’s gibberish to me,” said Tan, turning to face Calen. “Like a bad imitation of a course destination.”

As he spoke, Calen saw a strange flash in his eye, the eye that she knew contained the cybernetic lens. His hand reached back to the number pad at the side of the terminal and input the same set of pseudo-coordinates. Calen smiled.

“And that’s what captains are for,” she said. “Tan, it appears that with good leadership, even you can produce results.”

Episode 82: Fire and Iceberg

Another trill chimed through the fighter ship, an incessant tone that suggested something important was about to happen. Captain Ortega turned away from the computer screen, growing nervous as the noise refused to stop.

“Is that you?” he shouted. A few moments later he heard the aggravated sound of tools being set to the side.

“No,” shouted Ensign Trell.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes!”

“There’s nothing on my readouts,” he yelled, stepping away from the room to walk closer to Trell’s workspace.

“There wouldn’t be,” she said as he neared the hole in the walkway where she’d removed a portion of the floor to get a closer look at the Phoenix Circuitry. She stopped crouching and turned off the light she’d affixed to her shoulder.

“Right, I know,” said Ortega. “If the Phoenix Circuitry is completely separate from the rest of the ship’s systems-”

“It is.”

“Assuming it is,” said Ortega, “then there wouldn’t be a readout from anything I could see on a computer related to the ship’s primary terminals.”

“Then why check the readouts?”

Ortega felt a strange sensation related to the usual falling feeling he lived through whenever he spoke to a technologist aboard a ship, a sensation suggesting he was missing something. Usually any technologists he spoke to didn’t have the capacity to kill him, however, and while he was sure Trell wouldn’t impatiently resort to violence he was also sure that she had considered it at least twice since they started searching through the systems.

“I checked them just to be sure,” he said, carefully. “And when I saw nothing, that’s why I thought it might be related to something you were doing.”

“It’s not me.”

“Okay,” he said. “Good. Now, we need to figure out-”

“It’s the phoenix circuitry itself,” she said. “Its own hardware is set up to make that noise.”

“Good,” Ortega said. “Progress! Sorry, I should’ve asked if you knew what it was instead of assuming.”

“I just figured it out,” said Trell. “It’s gotten a little easier now that I’m working with the assumption that all of the hardware not connected to the main systems is related to the Phoenix Circuitry, but it still throws me for a loop every once in a while. No way to tell what it means, though. We should contact the Captain, and ask her to interrogate our guest further.”

***

“There’s a horrible hum on your ship, Tan,” said Captain Calen. Pilot Tan was secured in the medical bay, tethered to the gurney with a lengthy restraint. Tan had felt uncertain about the arrangement when he first awoke to it, but had gradually started to feel like his location was one of the few things that, for whatever reason, was keeping the Captain from slipping into her own brand of cruelty.

“Oh?” he said.

“Yes, yes there is,” said Calen, sitting in a chair and leaning back. “I can’t fathom what it is, but we know it involves that Phoenix Circuitry of yours.”

“Oh!” he said, his face filling with recognition for a moment before speedily clearing.

“Oh,” he repeated. “That. I don’t know much about that.”

Calen raised an eyebrow.

“Why don’t I believe you and that wonderful poker face of yours?”

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m really not… okay, I know that I shouldn’t tell you anything, Emperor’s Orders and all that, and while I’ve got no real love for this whole Dyson Empire thing I’ve also got nothing against it. But I’m also a prisoner here, and you’re being really nice under the circumstances and I know that you’ve already thought about killing me today, so I’d like to give you something, I would, but… I really, really don’t know what to do or say here.”

“Say that which will keep me from giving in to that temptation, the temptation that you just mentioned.”

“Killing me?”

“Let’s not dwell on the delicious specifics right now. Know this, Tan: I want to be the one to kill you, I really do, but I can be persuaded to kill others instead. Don’t tax me, and just tell me about the alarm.”

Tan held up his hands in a strange combination of fear and exasperation.

“But I don’t know!” he said. “I can’t help you! If I knew more, I probably would, but I can’t! You’ve already got my name, rank and serial number, so can we move on?”

“You have a serial number?”

“Yes,” he said, defensively. He thought for a moment. “Did I not already tell y… Three Twenty-Two?”

“Is that your serial number?”

“Yes,” he said. “I think. It’s… it’s on a card back at my ship, you can have Captain Ortega or Trell-”

“Ensign Trell.”

“-Ortega or Ensign Trell pick it up if you want. But if you want information on that… noise, or the Phoenix Circuitry or the Emperor’s Eye, I can’t tell you much. They’re all connected, I know that much, but I’ve barely heard anything. I only heard the noise you’re talking about twice before.”

“Before what?”

“Before now.”

“No,” said Calen. “Tell me what event the noise preceded. That sound sets off something or readies something, and I need to know what procedure you followed. Where were you when it happened?”

“Piloting my ship,” said Tan. “Just before leaving my home system, and then once more before getting to your system.”

“So it lets you know to launch?”

Tan closed his eyes.

“Maybe,” he said. “It’s… hazy. I can’t remember much.”

Calen narrowed her eyes. She stood, walked to the gurney, and entered the commands to unlock his manacles. She grabbed him by the shoulder and began pushing him to the door.

“Wait!” he said. “Wait, no, don’t kill me!”

“I’m not killing you, coward!” said Calen. “That’s too good for you. I’m getting to the bottom of this noise once and for all.”

Much earlier, on another world…

Harold Zamona touched the brick wall of the laundromat, feeling it. It would break easily if he wanted it, but so might the gauntlets.

Since the horrible day of the abduction, he’d been growing stronger. It was wonderful at first, but he quickly reached the point where it was incapacitating. He couldn’t touch anything without breaking it, and his entire record in the wrestling ring was called into question. After destroying his apartment building one night in a series of accidents that started when his dinner was delivered, he was found legally not guilty of endangerment but was required to wear the gauntlets.

They worked marvelously, and his strength dropped to manageable levels. He couldn’t go back to being a full time wrestler again, of course… even if his weakness wasn’t artificially generated his mental stability had been in question since his claims about the abduction… but he could function in normal society. No one doubted that he’d met aliens… humans had been on the Galactic scene for quite some time, after all… but the ethereal, dream-like details of incomprehensible experimentation, coupled with a total lack of evidence (apart from his incredible strength) made it sound like a bad conspiracy theory. Only the sorts of people who believed in sightings of the Void Pilgrim gave much credence to his story.

The Iceberg did eventually reenter the ring on one amazing night, however. The influence of the gauntlets was reduced so that he could compete against four of the other hardest hitters of the day. As amazing as “The Night Where The Gloves Come Off” had been, he realized two weeks later just how fragile the gauntlets were; his strength was still increasing, and the gauntlets could break through use.

Four years and three pairs of gauntlets later, it was harder and harder to use them carefully. He didn’t like having to file for new gauntlets, and the required week of gingerly touching everything in the fragile world around him. As such, while he knew in his head that he could break the laundromat’s wall, he’d also noticed the telltale sparks and signs of wear and tear. He didn’t even know if the next model of gauntlets had been designed for him yet, and breaking them now could put him out of commission for months if he was unlucky.

Harold gritted his teeth and hoped that the worst wouldn’t happen before pushing forward. The wall buckled, the gauntlets sparked, and the bricks tumbled in.

Someone screamed, a woman’s voice. Possibly someone who worked in the laundromat? The smoke and dust kicked up by the collapsing wall cleared, but the scent of the crumbling dust remained. He scanned the comfortable sitting room, a sure sign that he was on the right track. After a moment, he saw the determined face of Zack Gamma, leveling a pair of Purcellian Strikers at him. Harold watched the DMA Agent sizing him up… before a look of surprise and confusion overtook the dedicated focus on his face. Zack’s pistols drooped.

It was only a moment’s hesitation, but it had served Harold well since he started this job. No one expected a minor celebrity to be their adversary.

Gamma was recovering, but Harold was already moving. Just before the pistols could point at Zamona, he swiped his arm to the side, knocking away the weapons.

“Where-” started Harold, just before Sister Barris fired the neural scrambler ray from the kitchen.

Harold felt nauseous, and the room started spinning.

“Shoot him again!”

“Zack, that’s not-”

“Look at the size of him, he’ll recover faster! Higher setting, shoot!”

Another beam of neuralizing energy collided with him and the world went dark.

***

Azar waited for the noise to settle down before opening the door to the bathroom, looking back into the rest of Zack’s safehouse.

“What happened out there?”

“Hi, Azar!” said Gamma, strangely chipper amid a scene of fallen bricks, settling dust, and sparking electricity. Sister Barris was dragging a dark, titanic man with massive gauntlets, moving him to a wall and a sitting position while Gamma was looking out of a hole in the wall into the alley. Zack gestured to the body with one of his pistols.

“You had some company. Same thing happens to me; right when I hop into the shower, that’s when someone knocks on my door. Fortunately, my plan of freezing like a midnight snowman distracted, uh… The Iceberg?… well enough that Barris could take him out.”

“You didn’t freeze, you were surprised,” said Barris, eyeing the sparking gauntlets on the attacker’s hands warily. “I’m also not convinced it’s The Iceberg.”

“It’s totally The Iceberg,” said Zack. “Look at him! Just imagine him with shorter hair and sunglasses.”

“Everyone who looks like him would look like The Iceberg with shorter hair and sunglasses.”

“Yes, but not everyone with a face like that would also have biceps the size of a grizzly bear on steroids.”

“Who is The Iceberg?” asked Azar. Zack pointed at the body, and Barris rolled her eyes.

“He was a wrestler, a champion,” she said.

“Yeah, until he went crazy a few years back,” said Zack. “He started talking about some sort of alien abduction story, saying these skinny gray folks with big eyes and weird ships stole him away one night and did experiments on him. Naturally, he was delirious the whole time and didn’t have many strong details.”

“Doesn’t sound that crazy,” said Azar. “Why would someone kidnap a wrestler, though?”

“No reason,” said Zack. “And there was no evidence, so odds are good that whatever he remembered isn’t what happened. A few months later, though, and his strength goes out of control. So strong that he was kicked out of his job, and couldn’t wrestle again. Who he is isn’t important right now, though,” said Zack. “What’s important is that we get you moving, Azar. If The Iceberg found you, then other people can’t be far behind.”

Episode 78: Neutrino Load

Ensign Trell and Captain Ortega jumped into action almost before the video from the Emperor’s Herald finished playing. They ran for one of the doors at the side of the ship’s command chamber, but the door slammed into place as they reached it. Trell angrily punched the door before she turned to a maintenance panel at the side of the door and ripped it open. The dangerous humming around them began to increase as the timer on the monitors in the room gradually ticked down.

“That humming is the ship’s reactor core kicking into overdrive,” said Ortega. “It’s the sound of a systematic overcharge designed to cause an explosion.”

“You’re sure?” asked Trell, tossing the panel’s cover away from the wall and looking into the maintenance niche.

“Pretty sure,” he said. “Zamona’s wrong when he says that no one alive’s experienced this kind of self destruct sequence from a firsthand location. If we can get to the reactor core quickly enough, we might be able to disable a lot of these systems. Or we could just make a break for it and try to reach the airlock.”

“The airlock’s too slow,” shouted Trell as she disconnected two cords and reconnected another to the vacated connectors.

“Only if we let it cycle. In emergencies it can be reworked for an explosive jettison. It might even help launch us further away from the explosion.”

A sudden spark and cloud of smoke issued from the maintenance panel and the door reopened. Trell pushed her way out, picked herself up, and ran through the door, Ortega moving along with her. Another door slammed into place at the end of the hall and Trell clenched her fists, stifling a frustrated scream before she moved to the wall. She paused and frantically began moving her fingers along the gray metalwork.

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s no maintenance control point,” she said. “At least… none I can find.”

“Should we go back?”

“No time!” she said. “And even if there was, do you think any other route from that room wouldn’t have more security doors?”

Another noise, a high-pitched whine, floated through the air, and Ortega turned his head in the direction of the reactor.

“That’s new,” he said.

Suddenly, all the lights in the corridor grew brighter before going off with a sizzle and a pop. After a moment, emergency lights powered up, creating a dim glow that outlined the path and the location of most exits. With a gentle hiss, the door in front of them lifted up.

“Definitely new,” said Ortega. “I don’t… I admit I’ve never seen a self-destruct mechanism do this. Have you?”

“No,” she said. “This isn’t a standard protocol. Unless…”

“Is everyone alive over there?” said Captain Calen’s voice from over Trell’s communicator. Trell activated it to respond.

“Yes, Captain,” she said. “Some sort of self-destruct sequence was activated, but all the power has turned off now. I don’t know if we’re still in danger or not.”

“You’re not,” said Calen. “I’d been monitoring your situation and the reactor was going to blow. I decided to fire a neutrino load, something that could harmlessly reach through the hull to neutralize the energy.”

“You had a weapon that could do that?” said Ortega. “I mean, I know weapons exist that can do that but most ships aren’t armed with them.”

“Our ship is designed to be able to neutralize ships without fully destroying them so that they can be salvaged later,” said Trell. “We also have features for gradual retrieval operations. Why do you think the ship type is called a Scuttler?”

“I… guess I hadn’t thought about it,” said Ortega. “Do they power up quickly?”

“No, I was targeting your ship in case of treachery,” said Calen.

“Of course,” said Ortega.

“Trell, you may be interested to know that you’re not entirely without power over there,” said Calen. “Some extra system lines your vessel, tracing its way through the exterior hull. It seemed like part of the main systems when everything else was running, but it’s clear now.”

“Can you tell what its purpose is, Captain?” asked Trell.

“I’ll work on that,” said Calen. “Right now I can tell you that it generates some sort of energy field. It’s low-grade right now, but could be increased, infusing the entire ship and everything immediately around it with some sort of high-energy radiation.”

“Immolating itself,” said Trell, opening her eyes wider.

“What?” asked Ortega. “Oh. Oh! Good call.”

“What that?” asked Calen.

“Captain, you may have discovered the Phoenix Circuitry we’re looking for,” said Trell. “It’s a long-shot, but it’s possible that the Phoenix Circuitry is a device designed to surround the vessel with some sort of energy. If we can figure out what that energy does, we might know what the Phoenix Circuitry is designed for.”

“Then you’ve got work to do,” said Calen. “With any luck, the Dyson Empire’s just given us a weapon that we can give right back.”