Category Archives: Cypulchral Cloud

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.”

Episode 77: Dangerous Protocols

“Nothing in this panel either,” said Ensign Trell, examining the book-thin component. She pushed it back into the wall and it locked into place with a satisfying clunk.

Captain Ortega nodded, resisting the urge to ask if she was sure. He’d seen more than his share of ship circuitry, and even performed emergency repairs under duress, but his field experience couldn’t match Trell’s actual engineering training. When it came to identifying if something was unusual in the computer circuitry, Ortega wouldn’t be able to do much more than confirm that everything looked like the standard fare.

Unfortunately, Trell’s time examining the hardware meant that Ortega was left sifting through what information he could on the ship’s software. Thanks to the CryptoBrick analysis earlier he had a few insights on where to look inside the ship’s computers, but most of the data was information he’d already seen.

“You’re sure that it’s safe to pull those components out of the wall while we’re accessing the mainframe?”

“Absolutely,” said Trell. “The subsystems are designed to be removed on the fly. The worst case scenario is that you’ll be without some data while I’m looking over everything. I’m starting to think that there’s either no trace of the phoenix circuitry on this ship, or that Tan already destroyed it before we arrived.”

“Do you really think he wouldn’t have told your Captain by now?”

“She wouldn’t torture someone in a medbay.”

“Really?” said Ortega. “That seems like the ideal place.”

A look of confused disgust crossed Trell’s face.

“What kind of sick person uses medical equipment for torture?”

“The… kind of sick person who doesn’t want the torture to be lethal?”

“People in your culture must not understand torture if it gets lethal.”

“People in my culture really don’t,” said Ortega. “We have laws against it.”

“So do we,” said Trell.

“Either way, there’s no signs of systematic destruction, or any kind of intentional damage against the ship,” said Ortega. “This place is almost pristine.”

“I suppose you’d have the expertise to recognize that,” said Trell. “Have you looked up information on self-destruct procedures?”

“No,” said Ortega, tapping new information into the terminal interface. “Good idea, though.”

The computer had a basic user command structure, one that Ortega felt was almost a few years out of date for a relatively new military power like the Dyson Empire. It was simple enough to use, but felt important.

“Why would someone with access to last year’s hardware use software that would have been on its way out five years ago?”

“Familiarity, perhaps?” said Trell, reaching for the next maintenance panel.

“Would you do it for familiarity?”

“No,” said Trell. “I’d only do it if I wanted absolute certainty that anyone using it would be familiar with the software. It’s probably a good idea for a rapidly constructed militia. The Soul Survivor did suggest… and our own experiences with Tan suggests… that this so-called Emperor quickly assimilates anyone with a modicum of competence into his service. If there was no time for a custom operating system… by far the best approach, in my opinion… an older system that people would be familiar with might help things along.”

“You’d prefer to make a custom operating system, though?”

“I already have one,” said Trell. “I plan on retiring to a moon fortress after I leave the military, one stocked with the trophies of a great career, and I’ve already established a preliminary system that can be modified for most of the kinds of bases I might acquire.”

“Would you incorporate any older operating systems onto your custom system? Something seems off about this.”

He pulled up the selected data. Five data files tagged as relating to self destruct systems popped onto his screen.

“I might,” said Trell. “I could take the graphical parts, overlay it.”

“Why would you do that?” asked Ortega. He tapped one of the files, the one titled ‘Self Destruct Protocols: Operation Eclipse Procedure.’

“Again, familiarity for others,” said Trell. “Guests. Or enemies.”

“Catering to familiarity for enemies?”

The file opened, and a video file started to play.

“No, not catering to them,” said Trell. “I’d use it as a decoy, or a lure. Set it up to look like it was a standard file system, probably even make a few non-essential commands work as expected, but just make it a facade that covers a ruse or trap. Something designed to lead them on a wild goose chase, feed them false information or activate a trap.”

The lights darkened in the chamber. Trell and Ortega looked up, surprised. The video file began to play, and every terminal in the room switched to the video as well. A large, dark-skinned man appeared, wearing a uniform of the Dyson empire and a pair of bulky, mechanical gauntlets.

“What did you find?” asked Trell.

“The Emperor’s Herald, someone named Zamona,” said Ortega. “I’ve seen him once before. Right before Doctor Rogers and I had to make it to your ship.”

“Congratulations on securing one of the Dyson Empire’s vessels intact,” said Zamona. “We also appreciate your interest in the Operation Eclipse Protocols, especially as they pertain to self destruct sequences.”

“He’s gloating,” said Trell. “Gloating in a video that might never have been seen. I admire the dedication, but it means we’re in trouble.”

“As you know, self destruct sequences involve legitimate security concerns which you, alas, have now become. If this vessel is within range, it will transmit images of your facial features, voice prints, or any other identifying characteristics which may be useful in learning who you are and what may have brought you here. The good news is that, while you will only have sixty seconds to live, you will gain a firsthand look at the self destruct information you sought, an experience that no one else alive can appreciate. Enjoy your final minute of life, and make peace in whatever way you see fit.”

The video ended, and a timer began counting down from sixty seconds. The lights returned to their standard setting, and a dull, dangerous hum began resonating through the walls.

Episode 76: Laser-Puffed Goodness

Pilot Tan entered the course corrections as he moved through the mists, grateful that the Soul Survivor’s alterations to The Signal no longer made it toxic for any computer hooked up to sensors. The Cypulchral Cloud was now no more dangerous than your standard nebula, and at only the size of a large planet it was easier to navigate. He wondered if, at some point, the planet might normalize in both its consistency and orbit enough to become an outlying gas giant of sorts, but that level of science was outside his general expertise.

An alarm sounded, suggesting that someone was trying to board the ship from one of the airlocks, using an entrance code. This confused him, but suggested good news; he wanted to help The Soul Survivor, of course, but it seemed strange that the Survivor’s plans would require marooning everyone at the remains of the space station. Perhaps some of them had made it back after all. He input commands that would allow the boarders access, after the airlock had time to cycle.

Minutes later, he heard the sound of the airlock door preparing to open. He double checked that he was in a safe patch of the cloud, and walked back to see who was entering. The airlock door spun open, and he smiled at the sight of Captain Ortega, carrying his helmet in one hand and holding up an Astroguard pistol with the other.

“Captain!” shouted Tan. “I mean… Ortega! Andrew? Can I call you Andrew? What’s… with the gun?”

Captain Ortega quickly holstered his pistol.

“Sorry. Wasn’t sure if I’d be welcomed when I got here.”

“Why wouldn’t you be?”

“Long story,” he said. “Didn’t think I was gonna make it here in time.”

“Yeah, shame about that,” said Tan. “But the Soul Survivor’s got his plans.”

“I’m sure,” said Ortega. “What’re you working on now?”

“Just piloting out of here.”

“Can I see?”

“Absolutely!”

Tan turned around to walk to the bridge, but stopped short when Ortega slammed the space helmet over his head. Moments later, there was a bright flash of light.

***

Captain Ortega sat in the tiny galley of Captain Calen’s scuttler. Flight suits were bulky and generally didn’t allow room for personal effects in their limited storage capacity, but Ortega had found ways to smuggle a few things over the years. One of the oddest was the box of cereal and flash-frosted milk he kept along with a shallow bowl and spoon.

With Calen back in command and the Soul Survivor’s body locked in a crate and Pilot Tan secured in the medical bay whether he wanted to be there or not, Ortega felt like he had the first moments of genuine relaxation since before he’d started climbing the volcanic fortress that Doctor Rogers had hidden away on Morcala days earlier. He took a few deep breaths and started eating the cereal.

“You’ve smuggled in your own meals?” asked Ensign Trell, entering and walking to the tanks where chilled water was kept. “I wouldn’t have thought a seasoned soldier like you would risk the extra weight.”

“The flight suit carries the weight, not me,” said Ortega. “Besides, I take out a set of rations to make it fit. The two cereal boxes and milk are small enough to weigh less.”

“I never did like milk on cereal,” said Trell, filling a glass.

“I eat it dry if I have to,” said Ortega. “I always liked this cereal a kid. Deliciously puffed wheat and rice, the only cereal shot with a ray gun.”

“Are you quoting something?”

“One of the commercials. I was thinking about it after getting back to the ship, and got really nostalgic after everything calmed down. Not sure why. How’s the captain?”

“Better now that she’s back in command,” said Trell. “She’s approved your suggestion to go back to Tan’s ship and investigate the phoenix circuitry. And since it looks like The Signal isn’t a danger anymore, we may see if we can pick up anything on its sensors from the Dyson fleet that we couldn’t pick up on our own, just in case there’s some high end encryption that would allow their transmissions to go undetected. In half an hour we should be about ready to start a more thorough search if you can tear yourself away from your cereal.”

“Absolutely,” said Ortega. “It’ll interrupt the day of classic adventure programs that I’d been planning on, but I can get ready. Where should I throw this?”

He held up the box of puffed wheat and rice, and Trell raised an eyebrow at the outdated appearance of a man in a stylized Astroguard uniform who seemed to be giving a thumbs up to anyone who looked at the box.

“The Astroguard has its own cereal?”

“No, that’s Captain Mayday,” said Ortega. “I watched it every day when I was a kid. There was always some new interstellar danger or space pirate or unexplored planet for him to triumph against. The cereal was one of the show’s primary sponsors. He’s the reason I joined the Astroguard.”

Trell nodded and tapped a slot on the wall that opened, revealing a standard waste receptacle.

“It’s nice to see that at least some propaganda works,” she said, returning her glass and walking out of the galley.

“It wasn’t propaganda,” said Ortega, throwing away the box and following after. “It was actually critical of the Astroguard in a lot of ways.”

The smiling face of Captain Mayday continued to smile as the two vacated the room, as sure as an inanimate object can be that it had once again helped out a cadet in need.

Episode 72: Rocket Boost

Captain Ortega shot forward, letting the floor of the ruined station’s makeshift landing bay drop away. He was moving faster than Captain Calen’s scuttler, but it had a good head start and would pick up speed quickly. After the lapse of concentration that slowed him in the hallway that led to the station’s exit, he was grateful for the extra seconds that Ensign Trell had bought him by fixing his flight suit’s systems faster than they could reboot on their own. If not for the thick, eerie mists of the Cypulchral Cloud that limited visibility, the scuttler would probably already be moving too fast to catch.

Ortega zipped through the mist, keeping his eye on it as it picked up speed. The mists began to obscure the ship, and Ortega knew that he was moments away from losing sight of it entirely.

“Keep tabs on the target,” he said. The display on the inside of his helmet drew a thin targeting outline around the scuttler, filling in the elements of it that were already too hazy. “Calculate appropriate vectors. If we can’t catch up to it before it leaves ten percent visual contact, go to maximum burn.”

After a second of calculation, a warning appeared on the display, suggesting the likelihood of both catching up to the scuttler and not crashing into it to be low.

“What about getting ahead of it, slowing down, and letting it catch up to me?”

His headset bleeped and information about the difficulty in getting ahead of it was displayed, along with information about how much trickier the local nebulaic conditions would make such a maneuver. Ortega knew that his in-suit computer wasn’t designed with emotions, but he always felt like that particular sound effect was the equivalent of a passive aggressive sigh. Ortega narrowed his eyes at the information and didn’t like what he saw.

“Let’s calculate the best trajectory for crashing into the scuttler. Figure out some way for me to collide with it that won’t leave me crippled, please. Banged up but field stable. Preferably not bleeding.”

The rocket pack burst to life, shooting forward at a speed that effectively blinded Ortega as he moved through the mist. He’d hoped to have a second to compose himself, but the calculations apparently decided that he needed to move immediately.

Suddenly he was along the side of it and rolling in its direction. The scuttler was moving faster, apparently using its scanners to avoid possible debris instead of running without unnecessary computer functions. Ortega banged into the side of it and yelped from the impact, registering even with the armor and inertial dampeners throughout his flight suit. He bounced off and forward as the rocket pack reduced its power.

He knew in his head that the scuttler was probably pushed to the side a bit by his impact as well, but from his vantage it stayed still while he bounced off and forward. With the reduced power of his jet pack, the scuttler moved forward from his point of view and he veered to the side again. This time he could brace for impact, but it didn’t help; his shoulder banged into the hull of the vessel, slid along it, and bounced off of a metallic extension causing him to not only ricochet off of the scuttler’s surface, but to spin in place. The spin caused him to lose ground as the scuttler continued, but ended with him facing the ship and rocketing into it. Having crunched into the metal more decisively, Ortega had the time to grab a metallic protrusion. The scuttler chose that moment to pick up speed.

The inertia almost knocked him off, but his computer knew the goal and helped to lock his arm into place as it held on to the side of the ship. Ortega took a moment to laugh. It wouldn’t be a comfortable climb to the nearest entrance to the ship, but he’d gotten to where he knew he needed to be.

Episode 71: Arretryp

Ortega jumped from the plinth of black marble, activated his rocket pack and shot for the door of the neon control room. The ion thrust provided by the pack wasn’t meant for confined spaces, but by rapidly activating and deactivating them it was possible to create a fast, reckless “skip” across the ground. His left foot touched the floor midway between the plinth and the door, and his right foot connected in a hop by the exit.

The long hallway toward the exit provided a safer venue for regular flight, and given the short amount of time available before Tan could take off and strand them in this space station forever he was willing to risk it. He propelled himself down the hallway of red metal, shooting beyond the crystalline structures that rested in the holes in the walls. He didn’t notice the crystal that changed its color as he moved beyond it.

The strange machines and weird structures behind the walls took note of the fastest behavior in the corridor in uncounted ages, a speed only noticed thanks to the existing damage. How long had it been since the last orders from on high? Death to Morcalans. Shatter the resistance. Activate the chronospores. Defend. Fall back and defend. Destroy the intruders.

This interloper didn’t have the raw life of the Morcalans, it had something different. And the species was the same. The orders were clear.

{ARRETRYP}

The sensation of the word rammed into Captain Ortega’s mind with the precision of surgical lasers and the force of an avalanche. The impact of the moment suggested that everything was wrong. Every way that Ortega had learned to look at the universe, every element of learned society and biological nature, it was all wrong. Not illusory just… wrong.

He wasn’t flying down the corridor. The crystal had grown from the walls to catch him, and had always been there. Where the rock held his arms and legs, the crystal burned. The burning spread like electricity through a highly conductive metal. Ortega screamed, dizzy.

{You fail,} came the words. {I died so long ago, but still see you fail. Yes… you’re a real hero now, aren’t you?}

The words were coming from somewhere. He wasn’t hearing them, but they were definitely issuing from somewhere. Some unknown sense beyond the standard five brought them. He’d always felt the input from the sense, but didn’t know it could provide different information. Didn’t he?

{Do you not wish to speak?}

“Who are you?”

The burning intensified for a moment.

{I would be you,} said the voice. {You are my escape, Captain Ortega. In this moment outside moments, let fear fade. I’ll bring you so many glories, Andrew… You are not of the Morcalans, but you are the same as they are. Let go of your senses for a time, I’ll only need one day to-}

“Astroguard protocol,” said Ortega. “Protocol. It… dictates the proper circumstances for acting as a temporary host for an alien entity. This isn’t unprecedented… none of the requirements are met here. This is not a peaceful contact. This is not… this isn’t right.”

{ARRETRYP}

The sensation of the crystal holding him in place and the burning returned, with a freshness that suggested it was the first time he had felt it. He’d heard about the first time it had happened to him, but no one believed those stories, did they? He screamed again. Something was wrong with what he was feeling right now. He wasn’t sure what, but something was wrong.

{You don’t need to let me become you,} said the voice. {I requested too much. I am fallen. I faded, as was appropriate. I miss it, so… I miss the stars. Long before the Pyrhians claimed their skies, I loved them. I ask merely for a taste. Let me rest in your mind, as a passenger. Surely you would do me this kindness?}

He’d heard about the first time he’d encountered this voice, but it always sounded like he’d been offered something that didn’t fit the proper protocols for being a host. This sounded different. It fit the protocols, didn’t it? What were they?

“The fool is trying to carjack you, and you’re actually considering it.”

Rogers.

“The Soul Survivor. Ortega, you know… you KNOW that the first protocol is your own common sense, and you’ve little enough of that as there is. How many times have you thwarted me by holding on to the belief that something was wrong? How often have you told your superiors that they were wrong, and needed to be reasonable? For once in your life, do something intelligent. You can’t expect me to-”

{ARRETR-}

“I’m not finished!” shouted Rogers in Ortega’s mind. The crystal and fire retreated, as if amazed at the voice they heard, but they quickly recovered.

{ARRETRYP}

There it was. Rogers’ had interrupted it, slowed the resurgence. It wasn’t as sudden as the last time. It wasn’t bad. It was unpleasant. It was definitely not the first time, too.

{I don’t need to be there in full, even,} said the voice. {The tiniest fragment can live on. Merely take me from here, in the back of your mind. I’ll leave you the moment I find a suitable new home.}

“If you’re not there to reason, how will you know a new home?” asked Ortega. “You might fail in reasoning, or never notice an opportunity.”

{I’ll wait as a seed,} said the voice.

“I don’t need to tell you how wrong that is,” said Captain Calen. “An invasive species is asking you for a foothold, and you won’t give one.”

{You’re interesting,} said the voice. {Most people use memories of their friends and loved ones to construct arguments against me. Why do you use memories of adversaries and unfriendly acquaintances?}

“Different points of view,” said Ortega. “Only a fool refuses to see the wisdom of someone who disagrees with them. Doctor Rogers has shown himself to be brilliant over the years, and Captain Calen has shown herself to be a tactical expert over… I think it’s been almost a day since I met her. A long, busy day.”

{ARRETRYP}

Ortega screamed. He could tell it was in his head, though. The scream didn’t happen. Was the pain happening? He forced himself to open his eyes.

He was flying down the hall, nearing the exit. He needed to quickly deactivate the rocket to avoid crashing. How could he let his mind wander like that?

{ARRETRYP}

Crystal and fire.

{You will not leave,} said the voice. {You will not leave while I am still speaking. You will remain outside of time until you agree. Perhaps… if you agreed to let me ride in a device? A CryptoBrick? Primitive… but serviceable. And secure.”

“Nothing’s totally secure,” said Ortega.

{Do you have a better option? Do you truly have some friend or associate with the expertise required to see the danger? I’m sorry, you don’t have those. Do you have an enemy to speak on your behalf?}

Ortega paused. Was there any reasoning beyond this? Friends, family, loved ones, enemies, allies, adversaries, and rivals flashed through his mind. None fit. There was another category, however…

“Promise it that you’ll send an investigative party to safely assess the situation,” said Captain Mayday. “It isn’t suffering in a way that demands immediate response. It’s the best you can offer, Cadet.”

{No,} said the voice. {No, this isn’t right. It’s not… you never even met him.}

“He didn’t need to,” said Captain Mayday. “I’m there for any Cadet who needs me. The Astroguard needs more people like Captain Ortega. And don’t think I don’t remember you from the time I encountered the Vishnari Viceroy.”

{What? No… he doesn’t know-}

“You see his mind,” said Mayday. “You see what he knows of me. You share minds with him, and a part of him can see your mind as well. I know what you know he knows. And what you know. It’s good to see you again.”

{That’s not-}

Captain Ortega gasped, tumbled, and rolled to a halt. Fortunately, his thruster was off and not pushing him into and along the ground faster and faster. He must’ve turned it off when he realized the flight was going poorly, a fortunate instinct grown from too many close calls over the years.

He stood, and saw the corridor’s exit. At the end of the platform outside, he could still see Calen’s scuttler lifting away. He grimaced, activated his rocket pack again, and launched toward it.

The crystalline bulb at the middle of the hallway flickered and went dark, its power expended. The sensors behind the walls detected the malfunction, issued a repair request that would never be received, and again waited for the next sign of an invasion.

Episode 70: Diplomatic Response

Captain Ortega’s eyes shot from Doctor Rogers to Captain Calen, knowing what would happen but not wanting to see it. Historically, the best tactic against Rogers’ ultimatums was to temporarily meet them, giving him time to talk until another opening presented itself. Instead, Calen narrowed her eyes at the request for unconditional surrender and launched herself across the room.

Rogers’ robotic body was faster than it looked, though, and stronger than most humans by far. Getting within arm’s length of it, even when catching Rogers by surprise, was usually the fastest way to lose a situation. Sure enough, as soon as Calen neared, his upper torso spun, and one of his arms slammed into Calen.

Rather than being knocked to the side, Calen latched onto Rogers’ arm and used the impact of the blow to spin around his metallic hull.

“What?!” shouted Rogers.

Calen didn’t respond. Instead, she made a fist and slammed it into the back of Rogers’ crystalline helmet. A crack formed in the metallic dome that sat where his head should have been.

“No,” he said. “Do you really think a single blow would-”

Calen punched the dome again, striking with enough force to make the robotic body stumble forward just to keep its balance. The crack was larger, spreading like a spiderweb. Tiny droplets of water began pushing their way through the transparent crystal.

“Fine,” he said. Electricity arced across his body. Calen screamed in anger, spasmed, and nearly fell off of Rogers, but managed to hold on. Some combination of willpower, experience, training and rage allowed her to push through. She threw her arm forward once more and shattered the crystal. Broken shards of the reinforced dome cascaded from the top of his red armor, carried by the falling water. Ortega was worried that the water would make the electricity more dangerous, but Rogers’ body stopped generating it the moment that his “head” was gone.

The red suit of armor that had contained Rogers crashed forward, falling onto the ground. Calen fell with it, splashing forward onto the floor of the neon chamber, but quickly pushing herself up.

“You and your enemy share one trait, Ortega,” she said.

“We don’t really have time t-”

“You both talk too much,” said Calen. “If he’d activated that electric surge before speaking, it might’ve ended me. Is your suit broken, or just repairing?”

“Repairing,” said Ortega. “But I’ve still got two minutes to-”

“Trell,” she said. “See if you can speed him along.”

“Calen, you need to return to your scuttler,” said Ortega. “Don’t worry about me, get to your ship before Tan takes off and strands us here!”

“Your noble act of self sacrifice isn’t reasonable,” said Calen. Trell ignored the two and ran to the plinth that Ortega had been placed upon when Rogers interrupted the armor. Trell began working on a panel by his arm. Ortega couldn’t see what was happening, but the repair meter on his display fizzled out, worrying him.

“It’s not self sacrifice,” said Ortega. “We need someone to get there quickly, so that all of us can leave!”

“Trell and I can’t make it back quickly enough,” said Calen. “Assuming that Tan has the ability to launch without my say so… something I doubt, but wouldn’t care to assume with any certainty… he’ll be long gone before any of us could run there. You’ve got a rocket pack built into your armor, though.”

“If we’re too far to catch up after running, I don’t think the extra speed of a rocket will help us to get there in time,” said Ortega.

“No, but you might be able to catch up to it after it’s left. With any luck at all, you’ll be able to catch that ship before we’re doomed to eternal seclusion in this haze.”

The display fizzled back into place, and Ortega was pleasantly surprised to see the status display readout indicating that all systems were normal. With a quick spinning of servos, he felt the joints loosen as mobility returned to his suit. He sat up on the plinth.

“His suit should be fully functional, Captain,” said Trell.

“Amazing,” said Ortega, stretching his arm and looking at it. “Thanks, Trell. Good work on-”

“We gained only seconds,” said Calen. “Don’t use them up speaking to us. Leave!”

Episode 66: Standoff

“I’m impressed,” said Doctor Rogers, turning back to the geode display. “I didn’t expect such acting from Morcalans. Typically they only play the role of an idealized version of themselves.”

Captain Calen narrowed her eyes and flicked a switch on her Maelstrom Ray. The device charged, issuing the sound of a higher power level, one midway to its valence setting.

“You’d do well to face me when you speak ill of me and mine,” said Calen. “Ortega says you’re nearly impervious to any killing blow thanks to that suit you call a body, but I’ve never seen the suit of armor I couldn’t break.”

“Calen, calm down,” said Ortega. “Let me talk to him. I hadn’t quite gotten to-”

“I’ll sign to the Farthest Fleet before you talk any further, Ortega,” said Calen. “You’d try diplomacy on an earthquake and haggle with a forest fire to talk it down to a copse. I’ve had enough of your talk, oh legendary captain, and think that your monster hunt needs to end now!”

Trell kept her laser blaster aimed at Doctor Rogers, but her eyes flickered from their quarry to her captain, and then back to Ortega.

“Captain, perhaps our guest has insight here-”

“No, Trell, not this time,” she said. “Captain Ortega has captured and lost this great enemy of his for years, and I’m beginning to suspect that it has less to do with the skill of his adversary than his own incompetence.”

“I won’t have you besmirching the name of Captain Andrew Ortega of the Astroguard,” said Doctor Rogers, turning in place. “He may be a cretin, a fool, and a meddlesome idiot of the highest caliber, and he might also set boundless records for stupidity, but he’s the only one who’s ever apprehended me.”

“Not anymore,” said Calen.

“Any failure to keep me incarcerated is on the part of his superiors,” said Rogers, pacing closer to Calen. “The Astroguard’s facilities are staffed by clods even greater than he. Anyone who doubts Ortega’s abilities must therefore be fools greater than they. In fact…”

“Don’t!” shouted Ortega, interrupting Calen as the finger on her trigger twitched.

“And why not?!” asked Calen.

“He’s baiting you,” said Ortega. “He knows something we don’t, either about this location, his position, or your weapon. He’s trying to lead you to the point where you’ll fire, which will trigger… something. It’s generally a stalling tactic he uses when he’s honestly not sure how to proceed, but knows that he’ll need a quick distraction to get into a better position.”

Doctor Rogers’ metallic body twisted at the waist to glare at Ortega, and the crystalline jar at its top bubbled furiously. Calen growled.

“Trell?” she asked.

“It’s possible,” said the Ensign. “I don’t know what this room is doing, but there’s a lot of ambient energy here, of a lot of different types. It’s possible something here would nullify the… unique behaviors of your Maelstrom Ray, or redirect them.”

“Then let’s not waste time,” said Calen. “Trell, give me your weapon. Shackle this beast, so that we can drag him back to the scuttler. We’re overdue for escaping this cursed place, and as soon as we’ve stopped the madman from working his will we’ll be able to take our leave.”

“Don’t be so sure,” said Rogers. “It’s curious to me that you don’t have a full party assembled… I take it your pilot was left behind?”

“Ortega didn’t use his fancy helmet on him,” said Calen. “He said it wouldn’t be useful until we could be sure that you wouldn’t just reuse his cybernetic lens against him. Then he stopped me from blinding the fellow.”

“A sensible suggestion on Ortega’s part,” said Rogers. “But not, I fear, an intelligent one. The Dyson soldier is still my dear friend, then, and as such the messages I’ve been submitting ever since you two interrupted my chat with Andrew will have been acted upon.”

“What messages?” asked Ortega.

“They don’t translate directly to a spoken language, electromagnetic transmissions of universal symbolism being what they are,” said Rogers. “But know that unless you all surrender to me now, unconditionally, the Pilot will fly away from this space station, and out of the Cypulchral Cloud, leaving us stranded here until the end of time.”