Category Archives: Desperate Measures

Episode 164: The Shape of Fire

Igneous sat in the clearing by Vox’s tent, sweltering near the sculpted mound of dry ice she’d positioned in the fire pit. That the ice itself was shaped like a traditional human campfire wasn’t lost on her and, in fact, was part of why she decided to pick up the small mound of cardice for her supplies. The “campfire-shaped sculpture” was rough and clearly made for humans just looking for vague shapes at parties, but it served her needs to a degree. She’d informed its maker that the Pyrhian word for the shape was Comcora, a word that might do better at selling to other Pyrhians than “campfire-shape”. She doubted anything would come from it, but she’d always liked the word.

After the purchase, she’d considered breaking it up so that she could cover herself in the material, but the risk of shattering when in contact with extreme colds remained. She didn’t know how much longer she could last, but for right now she was willing to cool herself by the camp ice.

A rustling from the planet’s strange foliage heralded the arrival of Vox Cul-Dar. He slowly entered the campsite, pulling a net behind him, one that Igneous saw contained an unconscious Shangmere. She looked up at Vox as the bounty hunter dropped the ropes he’d been using to drag the net. He approached the campfire, eyeing the cardice carefully.

“You’ve replaced my fire pit with a block of ice, I see,” he said. “That explains why I’ll be chilly tonight.”

“You were expectin’ to be cold in this humidity?”

“Just a feeling,” he said. “Which is quite a feat if you’re around, I must say. You’re truly not looking well, Igneous. Are you certain that you’re up for catching Zack and Fletch.”

“Fletch and Zack,” she said. “Though I note that you’ve brought us neither. I thought you said you’d bear great fruits.”

“Oh, I have,” he said. “I know you want us to focus on Fletch first, and we will, but I believe this creature is imperative to locating Gamma at all. Zack will encounter her again.”

“Well, he is a stupid human,” she said. “He likes to help. I wouldn’t expect him to rush into danger just to rescue a friend who could probably handle themselves, but I saw him more or less do just that in Helix.”

“Igneous, are you suggesting that we send a note to Gamma, informing him that we have his friend held hostage and that we will terminate her if he doesn’t surrender?”

“No, but I thought you were going to,” said Igneous. “That seems like your way of thinkin’ when you can’t punch or kick someone into captivity.”

“Perhaps it is,” said Vox. “For Zack, though, we won’t need any such ruse. Behold…”

He reached into his backpack and withdrew a horrible, green hat with an antenna sticking out of the crown. Igneous took a step back.

“You were right on his tail, then,” she said. “How’d you get that?”

“I picked it up from her,” he said. “I had a hunch that I’d meet her, and the hat contained a note written in Zack’s handwriting.”

“You know his handwriting? Vox, you’re takin’ this hunt too seriously.”

“Not for the reward the DMA is offering I’m not, and neither is Fletch, wherever she is. In any event, this was a very helpful note, one that will, I expect, take us directly to Gamma when he finally rears his hatless head.”

Episode 162: Sneezing Powder

“Looks great, though,” said Zack. “Sorry.”

“Hmm?”

A bright flash of light lit up the pit and Zack twirled his remaining pistol, hidden under a fold of his coat. Nectra gasped and held up her hands as the light and the scent of ionization flooded the air around her. The sounds of cheering Sthenites vanished, and she dropped the staff, not sure what was happening.

Silence ensued.

Carefully, Nectra lifted her eyes to look around. Zack was gone. She took a steadying breath and carefully looked up. The Sthenites were gone, but she felt something brush away from her ears and down her back. Alarmed, she jumped to the side, scooped up the scythe-charged staff, and twirled it toward the ground, stopping just before she realized that it was the same horribly dated green hat that Zack had tossed at her to wear.

She looked up again and listened carefully, hearing the distant murmured hisses and whistles of the Sthenites. She picked up the hat, and noticed a small, folded piece of paper tucked into the devices inside. She withdrew the paper, turned to walk to the shadows in the side of the pit that she’d entered from, but was surprised to see a lack of shade. She filed away that oddity to consider later, and instead moved to Zack’s side of the pit while she unfolded the paper.

She read the short message, and her worried look shifted into a look of surprise, but it was quickly followed by a smile. A sly grin stretched across her bat-like face, and with a surprising amount of grace she began to clamber up the side of the pit.

She reached the top and carefully looked about. Some Sthenites were near the huts in the distance, but none seemed to be actively watching. She had spotted guards on the gates of the city wall itself, and even a few hidden in the foliage around it, but the guards she’d seen were all focused outward and, more importantly, not upward.

She took some rapid, steadying breaths, scrambled over the edge of the pit, and moved to a mud-covered rock surrounded by scraggly shrubs. She awkwardly sat between them, hoping she was out of view from any casual glances in her direction. The wall of the city was just a short sprint away, but there were almost no good hiding places between there and her shrubbery. She looked at the sickly sky and wished that she could fly straight up to the potentially poisonous clouds for cover, but only the most athletic of the shangmere could easily gain more than a few feet with their wings when not in low-gravity conditions, and only dedicated fliers could attain the bird-like grace that a true flight to the safety of the clouds would require.

She was, however, athletic… or at least agile… enough to scale the wall and drop to the other side if she could get to it. Most of the Sthenites she could see were either unarmed, or only casually wielding the most basic of weaponry. She assumed the guards on the wall were still there, but they’d be looking out into the jungle, naturally? There was no way they were looking in, unless they were bored of the jungle, a possibility that Nectra dismissed as ridiculous due to the intrinsically interesting features of jungles. Unfortunately, she was trying to get to the side that they were watching, but with a bit of luck she could make it to the foliage before they riddled her with spears or arrows or throwing knives or whatever the guards might have had on hand.

Nectra took a pair of long breaths, took another quick look around, and inched out of her hiding space between the rubbery bush and the boulders. Free of the potential rustling that the bush might have caused, Nectra raced to the side of a small hit just at the base of the wall.

Some inquisitive trills from the distance suggested that she might’ve been spotted, but she didn’t hear any shouts. Maybe she was misunderstanding the Sthenites, or perhaps they only thought they’d seen an animal, but either way she quietly stepped to the wall of stone surrounding the city. She twirled the staff, bent her knees, and jumped.

The leap easily placed her over halfway up, and the wall’s rocks were rough enough that she could run up them with no issue, requiring only the faintest wing motions to maintain her balance. In a moment she was on top of the wall, with a yellow-feathered and green-scaled Sthenite staring at her in shock.

Nectra shouted in surprise, twirled her staff, and struck the guard on the head with, she was thankful to notice, the end of the staff that didn’t have a glowing blade of energy emerging from it. The guard fell back, hit the ground, and made a panicked whistling noise.

Nectra carefully watched the Sthenite, but it didn’t move. She reached forward to check to see if the creature was still alive, but she heard confused whistles and trills from elsewhere on the wall. She panicked, jumped, opened her wings, and gracefully flew toward the nearby trees. Even if she was spotted by someone on the wall now, or by a scout hiding in the underbrush, she could keep ahead if she just stayed high and hidden.

Nectra banked to the right to move behind a tree, and flew headfirst into a series of tethers and cords. The green and brown strands disconnected from the branches they’d affixed to, snapped down, and wrapped themselves around the Sthenite. Nectra looked around frantically, not sure what was happening, as the net that had ensnared her began swaying back and forth.

Before she could slash the cords with her scythe, a hand grabbed the net, steadied it, and turned it. Nectra found herself hanging upside-down and staring into the face of a green-skinned, not-quite-insectile creature with large eyes who was wearing a simple tunic and smiling genially.

“You are Nectra, yes?”

“Ye-”

“Of course you are. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I was beginning to think that I had my schedule wrong. But if you know what you’re doing, the tea here is never wrong.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry, I believe I have you at a disadvantage. My name is Vox Cul-Dar, and we have a mutual friend named Zack Gamma.”

“You’re a friend of Zack’s?”

The alien chuckled, lifted a hand, and opened it to reveal a gray powder. He breathed across his palm, just a moment before Nectra realized what was happening. She sneezed twice at the dust blown her way, and everything went dark.

Episode 156: Polite Awakenings

Zack smelled oatmeal that came with a healthy portion of cinnamon, milk, and honey, a reminder that every day could be sweet. He also smelled the black coffee, a blackness like the cold, unfeeling emptiness of space, or like the soot or mud that covered dumpsters in back alleys. Coffee that black would be bitter and real, a reminder that if you forced yourself to like something that tasted awful, the side benefits could help you to last until the next breakfast where there’d be more coffee.

His eyes fluttered open, and the strange thatching of mud and leaves reminded him that he wasn’t home. His ceiling didn’t look like that. He was struck with the realization that he never truly thought about what his ceiling looked like, but he knew it wasn’t what was above him.

“He’s up!” shouted a voice. Zack winced at the noise and looked across the room, gasping in shock at the gangly, inhuman being before him before he remembered Nectra. The shangmere stepped across the hut, stepping away from a Sthenite he didn’t recognie, and a human that he groggily recognized as Chala.

Nectra moved in front of him and he shook his head.

“Hey. I’m sorry, I… how’d I get here?”

“The Sthenites carried you,” said Nectra. “And The Phantom Matador.”

“She was very resourceful,” said Chala, stepping forward. “She encountered the guards who’d gone to facilitate your trial and the hunters who’d been sent to make sure you didn’t try running away. They recognized her from your description, and gave chase, and pursued her… right to you, where she quickly surrendered. They found me and brought me into the action so that I could translate.”

The orange-scaled Sthenite watched the conversation between the three aliens and slithered out. Zack followed its departure but turned back to Chala.

“Excellent,” said Zack. “So, the Matador is…?”

“In the slammer!” said Nectra. “The, uh… hokey?”

“Do you mean pokey?” asked Chala.

“Probably,” said Nectra. “He wasn’t up when we left.”

“That’s good,” said Zack. He leaned back into the cot and almost started relaxing before a sobering thought anchored his mind back in reality.

“How long was I out? Wait, why was I out?”

“The healer wasn’t sure,” said Chala. “But you’re sick. I wasn’t sure if we could break you out of it, but Nectra suggested familiar smells.”

“Humans like familiar smells,” Nectra said, nodding.

“Right,” said Chala. “So I tried making some coffee, and getting some instant oatmeal from my supplies cooking. I’ve not broken into that box in a while since I got used to the local food. Up for a bite?”

“Maybe,” said Zack. “But how long was I out?”

“About three hours,” said Nectra. “Don’t worry, though. We’ve still got plenty of time to stay ahead of Fletch.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Zack. “We’ll have to leave pretty quickly now.”

“You can’t,” said Chala, concerned. Zack tilted his head.

“Why?” he asked.

“You’ve got a trial to finish,” she said.

“We don’t have time for that,” said Nectra. “There’s an implacable assassin who means to see him dead, and she’ll be tracking him relentlessly. Zack’s only chance is to run while he can!”

“No, she’s right,” said Zack.

“What? Why?”

“I met someone in the caves when the trial first started,” said Zack. “But… the trial didn’t finish. I’ve gotta finish the trial, otherwise the Sthenites’ll kill me. I might be able to evade Fletch on this world, but I can’t evade the Sthenites. Not for as long, at least. And I’d rather have them as friends than as enemies.”

Nectra frowned and looked to the door. After a moment she sighed, walked to the door’s frame, and picked up her staff.

“I guess I’ll need this after all,” said Nectra.

“Why?” asked Zack.

“Don’t you remember?” she said. “Zack, if you’re going through with the trial, then we’re fighting to the death.”

Episode 152: Circuses

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

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

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

“How?” asked Zamona.

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

“You mean we’re being ignored?”

“Yes, sir. By BristleCorp.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 149: Detour From Memory Lane

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

“Well?” she asked.

“I’m thinking.”

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

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

“I don’t believe you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zack stood up straighter.

“Just how good is that reticle of yours?”

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

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

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

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

Fletch frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yellow?”

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

“Something I was thinking earlier, not important.”

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

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

“Six hours?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Episode 147: Heed ‘Em

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

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

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

“You smoke?”

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

“The what?”

Zack stared at Nectra before shaking his head.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

“Well, you seem pretty martially artistic.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our deal did not specify that-”

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

“Yeah,” said Igneous. “Heed ‘em.”

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

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

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

Vox frowned and pushed Rendelac back into his pack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 145: Document Delivery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Harold Zamona seems to believe that we can.”

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

“I know, sir,” said Dawes.

Mayfair drummed the top of his desk.

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

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

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

“Good luck, sir.”

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

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

Much earlier, on another world…

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

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

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

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

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

“Going down?” asked Zack.

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

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

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

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

“Not a ship?”

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

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

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

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

Episode 142: Knowing What To Look For

“Not much further,” said Nectra, looking over the scanner while perched in the branch of a tree, holding her staff for balance. “He’s only a few hundred yards away.”

“He’s slowing down, then,” said Zack, catching up to the tree and shaking the latest clump of dirt off of his shoe. “Not sure what’ll happen when he decides he’s found a defensible position. I don’t think he likes the idea of being cornered. Hopefully he’ll make a mistake.”

“Is that common?” asked Nectra. “Sorry, I mean… are the mistakes common? I assume that manhunts don’t happen often. Do they? I mean, the DMA has a pretty big percentage of its operations dedicated to it, so I suppose they might. But I was asking about people making mistakes.”

“Well-”

“When they’re cornered. Mistakes when they’re cornered. People make mistakes all the time.”

“They make more when they’re under pressure, and this place is just the kind of pressure cooker that we need. He’s smart, though. He’s not gonna run until he’s exhausted, unless we get more luck than we deserve down here.”

“Ooh, I like that,” said Nectra. “You need to say something like that when you find him.”

“Don’t know about that. Talking’s one of the things he does best, and it gives him an edge. I’ll just let my strikers do the talking.”

“Right, something like that,” said Nectra, nodding eagerly. “In fact… I don’t have anything that could record us catching him. But maybe if I rewire the tracker…”

“Nectra? We’re on a timetable here.”

Nectra fixed a piercing gaze at Zack, and he could almost feel the waves of focus boring into him. Her too-wide mouth broke into a toothy smile as her eyes widened.

“Right! Right, sorry, I’m new to this. Let’s go… this way, he’s this way…”

Nectra jumped from her branch and flew forward, vanishing into the trees. Zack nodded and followed.

***

The Phantom Matador held the hilt of his deactivated energy blade, pushing his back up against the rocky outcropping. He’d actually seen Nectra leaping between trees behind him at one point; his pursuers were closing in. He took a deep breath and readied himself for the great dance, reaching out with his mind to locate all of the rocks and boulders in the area. It would be an inelegant end to his relationship with the detective, and likely with Nectra as well if it came to that, but he was prepared.

A tiny dart lanced from the foliage and connected with his throat. The Phantom Matador gasped, felt his knees weaken, and fell to his knees. His vision blurred, but he could see the leaves of the bushes part. A figure in a blue cysuit emerged. The cysuit was built for stealth, and the simple reticle over her eye told him everything he needed to know even before he realized that she was holding a rifle. He started reaching for the control on his sword, but the woman was too fast and pinned his arm to the stone behind him.

“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood,” she said. “It’s always tempting to see how people do when they’re woozy and trying to operate dangerous equipment. It’ll be easier to move you if you’ve got both of your arms and legs, though.”

“Who… how-”

“Phantom Matador, I’m an operative of the Desperate Measures Agency, and I’m prepared to offer you leniency. I’ve been tracking you for some time now… it’s hard to know where you actually are, but my scanners can pick up petrakinetic frequencies. If you hadn’t just tried to use that fancy brain of yours, I probably would’ve waited all night without knowing that it was you.”

“But… but they-”

“They’re actually easier to track than most people think. They’re energy waves like any other, you just need to know what to look for. The right military hardware makes it easy, and I collect things like that. Now… you’ve got two people tracking you, and I could do very well if I bring all three of you in. So, before I take you back to my ship, I think it’s time that you play bait.”

The Azureback Encounter

“We will miss you, Sky-Carrion, but wish you well tonight as you depart,” said Weshar, repeating the words that the Chief Healer could not, by tradition, speak to people from other worlds. The Chief Healer nodded her head approvingly as Weshar intoned the rehearsed words. Vox Cul-Dar stood, bandaged and bruised but able, with Rendelac in the pack that he wore on his back. His robes had been damaged in the explosion that led to his designation as Sky-Carrion, but he had been able to clean them in exchange for his own information, information from the Rhythnian Boutique’s catalog that he was, in effect, trading back to the tribe that had culturally led to the boutique’s founding. Much of his knowledge came from offworld Sthenites taking advantage of the luxuries of Veskid’s civilization, though, so he wasn’t sure how much would be useful in the long term.

Rendelac chimed and translated Weshar’s words just as Weshar spoke the Chief Healer’s. Vox leaned against a walking stick (easily found from the drier fire wood that the Sthenites collected) and sipped more of the tea that he had come to enjoy. He nodded.

“Tell them that I am grateful for their hospitality, but that I must now leave. There is a great beast of earth and fire even now approaching them, and I would speak to it. It means them no harm, but goodness knows it may mean harm to me.”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “I caution against speaking falsehoods.”

“This is not a falsehood, Rendelac. It is a premonition. My destiny awaits us.”

Rendelac buzzed and spoke to the Azurebacks who had gathered to see his departure. The Chief Healer nodded and gestured to their city’s gates, giving him free passage to leave. The gates were situated next to the river that flowed through the town, a river that was not impeded by the city’s wall by virtue of the gates locked into place, gates that allowed the water to flow through while impeding the progress of potential invaders.

Vox approached the gate and a massive, red and blue-scaled Sthenite pushed the door open for him. A surprised susurrus of hisses and trills issued from the crowd as a mist, thick and roiling, poured through the door. Other Sthenites responded in more reasonable hisses to the worried crowd as Vox stepped into the ankle-high cloud.

“This is unseasonable,” said rendelac. “Fog and mist only emerge from their river at other times of the year, and then it manages to creep up from the portion of the river within the city as well. Reportedly some of the guards on the wall noted the unusual cloud bank that crept up in the late afternoon, and have been puzzled as to why it stopped right at the wall this evening.”

“Thank you for the information,” said Vox, turning to wave at the Sthenites as the door closed again, hurriedly pushed by the same Sthenite who opened it. “It does not change what I know of what is happening, but it does alter the context for how the Sthenites observe it.”

“Please share what you know of the scenario, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “You have been curiously prescient.”

“All will be made clear, once it gets foggier,” said Vox, stepping closer to the river bank where the mist was thicker. “Or perhaps steamier… this fog is warm and humid, not cold and clammy as I expected. It makes sense, though.”

“Does it?”

“To me, at least,” said Vox. “And, I presume, to our associate. Reveal yourself, intruder! You know who I am, and I know who you are, so this continued attempt at clumsy hiding helps neither of us, Igneous.”

Silence crept over the waters until, with a burbling splash, a dull-orange glow rose from the water, still obscured by the thick steam. The figure took steps to the shoreline until Igneous became visible, a towering pillar of orange and red interspersed with blackened, charred husks.

“How did you know it was me?” said Igneous, increasing the heat around Vox. Vox reflexively tried waving the hand with his wooden tea cup in the air to clear the extra humidity.

“The local culture is well worth investigating, Igneous. I take it that you’ve arrived to seek Zack Gamma?”

“You might say that,” said Igneous.

“You wouldn’t be trying to help him, would you?”

“If I was, it would be no business of yours,” said Igneous. “But I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

“You’ve spent too long among the humans to use such an idiom,” said Vox. “Though from the look of you, frying things may soon be your best career option.”

“That’s the main reason I’m here,” said Igneous. “Fletch is here.”

“Yes, I know,” said Vox. “We met… what does that have to do with anything?”

“She… threatened me. She’s carrying a dose of Teles.”

“Is she, now? That surprises me. I never would have taken her for a user.”

“She isn’t. I intended to use half of it.”

“Only half? But… last I checked, even a full dose of Teles would have little to no effect on a Pyrhian without… you mean pre-mixing, though, don’t you?”

“The frozen half of the Teles. It might delay my metamorphosis.”

“I see,” said Vox. “You know, most would just age with dignity rather than turning to such methods.”

“I’ve got business to finish before it happens,” said Igneous. “And I think I’ll need the time the Teles can buy to do that. She stole it from me, threatened me with the fiery half, and told me to stay out of her way, or help her to catch Zack if asked. I want the Teles back.”

“Naturally. As it so happens, I want her to stop getting in my way while hunting Gamma myself… I’ve an inkling of where we might find her, and an inkling of where we might find Gamma thanks to a gift from the Azurebacks. But why were you approaching their city?”

“I figured someone like Gamma would create enough of a stir to cause a commotion at some trace of civilization. This place was close enough to the landing site that word would’ve spread this far, assuming the Sthenites talk to each other.”

“Sensible. Well then… loathe though I am to splitting a bounty, it’s worse to keep someone like Fletch around. What do you say that we work as partners here? First to eliminating Fletch, and then to securing Gamma?”

Igneous’ mouth twisted into a smile, a motion visible now with her altered face.

“Good plan,” she said. “Wish I’d thought of it.”

Episode 134: Information, Influence, and Infamy

“This is amazing. It’s only a fraction of what it will be, but it’s amazing. The insight it gives… mustn’t get lost in the moment, though, lest it lead to a migraine.”

Vox took his first sip of the tea. He sat next to a warm fire, and felt the soothing tea roll through him. The apprentice healer, a silver-scaled and blue-feathered Sthenite named Weshar, sat in a coil next to him, nodding knowingly as the village bustled around them. Most ignored them and focused on their work, but a few of the younger ones lingered in curious groups to see the Sky-Carrion and his box that could talk and, more impressively, think.

“What gives insight, Vox Cul-Dar?” asked Rendelac, sitting next to Vox on the log that he had pulled from the pile of firewood to avoid sitting on the ground.

“I knew you would ask that,” said Vox, nodding back to Weshar. “Vox, would you tell our friend how happy I was to learn that I had been found… saved, even… by the Azurebacks.”

Rendelac issued a series of tweets, trills and hisses. Weshar watched the thin, black computer as its eye shifted from green to purple and back again. Rendelac was still not fluent in the Sthenite language, but his understanding was growing. The computer paused mid-hiss, and Weshar watched curiously.

“Theshtreshar,” said Vox. “The word you want is Theshtreshar.”

Rendelac’s eye changed to orange.

“What makes you so certain, Vox Cul-Dar?”

“These are the Azurebacks,” said Vox. “Most of the Sthenites who came to Veskid and created the Rythnian Boutique were Azurebacks, and there was great information about their culture.”

Rendelac’s eye remained orange, but it changed in hue and intensity, becoming darker and softer.

“I had the opportunity to witness much of your research, Vox Cul-Dar.”

“But not all of it.”

“No, but I find it unlikely that you found a comprehensive vocabulary.”

“Believe what you wish, Rendelac,” said Vox. He took another sip of the tea, and raised it in salute to Weshar, who watched the gesture without comprehension. “The boutique offered great insight.”

“Do not confuse knowledge for insight, Vox Cul-Dar. Or information for knowledge.”

“How can one have knowledge without information?”

“They can’t. But they may have lumber without a home, if the lumber has not yet been properly built.”

“That is… one of the classic truths,” said Vox. “It is strange that I forgot.”

“You have not studied the wisdom of Rendelac in quite some time, Vox Cul-Dar. A flaming coal will grow cool if denied oxygen for fuel and the companionship of other coals.”

“Perhaps I made the tea improperly, too. There are mind-affecting effects, after all. Anyway… continue thanking him for me, please. Theshtreshar.”

After a quiet moment where Rendelac’s eye stared at Vox, the eye swiveled back to Weshar and Rendelac began speaking in the local Sthenite tongue. Vox watched the locals work while Rendelac spoke, and waved to a cluster of the young who were watching from nearby. The young feathered serpents seemed to panic and quickly slithered away at being noticed. While not all of the Azurebacks had truly azure backs, there was an overabundance of blues, bluish purples and bluish greens on the scales and feathers of the assembled. Vox wasn’t sure how this compared to other Sthenite groups, but he assumed that there was a difference.

Rendelac stopped speaking and Weshar began hissing and trilling in response.

“He says that we are quite welcome, and he, in turn, thanks us for our, well… ‘explosive injury’ is the best translation, though it is not a literal one… and he hopes that the Cerulean Tea is as soothing as you had hoped.”

“It is,” said Vox, taking another sip. It was warm, and he could feel different parts of his mind pulling into sharper focus while others became murky. It would not be dangerous in such small quantities, but he still wanted to know how it would function in advance.

“So tell me,” he said with a smile, “how does one say Cerulean?”

Rendelac’s eye shifted to blue. Vox wasn’t sure if the blue shift was an emotional response, or if Rendelac had control over the appearance and was choosing to make the color fit the question.

“As you know… the word for Cerulean is Theshtreshar. It’s an unusually specific shade of blue, and unusual that you would ask when you already have this knowledge.”

“I’m exchanging information for insight,” said Vox. “I have plenty of lumber now, and I wish to build my house.”