Category Archives: Hazard Pay

Episode 154: Flight Delay

Zack and Nectra continued moving the body of The Phantom Matador. Zack had wearied of transporting The Phantom Matador by lifting his limbs quickly, and Nectra had recommended the switch to carrying the criminal by keeping his arms over their shoulders. Appearing to walk side by side, the three trudge through the jungle. Zack was definitely moving slower, and looking paler. He coughed violently and slowed to a stop.

“Hey, mind if we take another break?” he asked. “This heat’s gettin’ to me… maybe Igneous’ ice tub wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.”

“Ice tub? And no, I don’t mind.”

“Yeah, she was… overheating or something? And so she made or bought a kind of hot tub that was cold. Who knows why.”

“Well, I don’t think we can do that,” she said, awkwardly lowering the Phantom Matador’s body to the muddy floor of the alien jungle. “But we can rest a bit. I can even scout ahead if you’d like!”

“Yeah, sure,” said Zack. “Don’t be too long, though. I dunno what Fletch drugged Matty with but it’s not deadly, so he’ll come to eventually. We should both be on the lookout for that.”

“Right,” said Nectra. “I’ll… get our bearings. Make sure we’re on the right path. Ooh, or maybe ask one of those snake people for directions!”

“I dunno how well that’d go over,” said Zack. “I said you might’ve been involved in those murders. Plus you don’t speak the language, do you?”

“Right, the murders… rest here, I’ll be back.”

Nectra’s wings opened, and she pulled her staff off of her back. Using the leverage that it granted, she easily jumped to a low branch, kicked herself even higher, and began gliding away.

Zack watched the flying shangmere until she was out of sight before turning back to The Phantom Matador, half expecting the criminal to already be up and pointing an energy blade at him. Zack reached into his coat, and pulled out a Purcellian Striker.

“Not a bad idea, imaginary Mat,” he said, charging the Striker and aiming it at his prisoner. In time he found a suitably dry log didn’t look poisonous and he sat upon it. Minutes later he drifted off to sleep.

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack checked his passport again before looking out the window. The pilot for his charter plane was running late, and the other two passengers at the private terminal weren’t talkative. One was a haukreen carrying a glowing glass tube over its shoulder, and the other a human wearing a business suit and checking a watch while reading a small pamphlet on the ecological impact of human civilizations on non-human planets.

An orange skinned vantarian neared, the first that Zack had ever seen with his own eyes. The four-legged creature approached, looking comfortable in a captain’s uniform that looked like it had been designed for humans but altered to accommodate humanoid employees. The vantarian tipped its hat.

“Apologies, everyone,” he said. “We can begin boarding now, there was just a last minute charter service that I needed to attend to. Which one of you is Zack Gamma?”

Zack shifted uncomfortably and looked at the other two passengers, who were similarly looking at each other and him. Zack looked back.

“Who wants to know?”

“Oh, it involves the delay,” said the captain, smiling. “Are you Mister Gamma, then? Someone came here to meet you. Is that fine?”

Zack looked at the captain in confusion before glancing at the entrance to the comfortable sitting area that acted as the private terminal’s waiting area. A grizzled, though well-groomed and decidedly sheepish, Azar stood at the door. He raised a hand in a friendly half-wave. Zack returned the gesture and turned back.

“Yeah, yeah that’s fine. I just go through the double doors when we’re done talking?”

“Oh, yes,” said the captain, turning toward the doors himself. “Take all the time you need, he tipped generously to earn a little extra time for your plane before we take off.”

The vantarian walked toward the double doors and the two other passengers followed, eying Zack and the stranger curiously. Zack watched them go as Azar neared, looking almost apologetic.

“Hello, Zack,” he said. “I found your folder and realized you were slipping off without saying goodbye.”

“I said goodbye last night,” said Zack. “And again before you came out to Ravelar with a former pro-wrestler for your secret vacation, if you’ll recall. I don’t belong here.”

“We’re your friends here, Zack. Seems to me you belong where friends are. Plus, if memory serves, you weren’t thrilled with the plan to head to Ravelar.”

“I was wrong about that,” said Zack. “Zamona wasn’t waiting to get you alone to turn in the bounty. Or if he is, he’s playing a longer game, one I wouldn’t expect him to have the patience for.”

“You don’t give him enough credit, Zack. He’s actually very bright.”

“Maybe not. You could see the silver lining of a smog cloud, though, so forgive me for being paranoid. It’s in the job.”

“One you do very well. Stay safe out there, Zack.”

“And you stay safe here. Take care, okay?”

“I will. Goodbye, Zack. And one more thing?”

“Yeah?”

Azar reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, glowing disk, a coin made of energy. Zack recoiled, but Azar was faster, quickly slipping it into Zack’s hand. The detective almost dropped it in surprise.

“Hey!” he shouted, while his brain processed. “Wow, that’s… that’s heavier than I thought. And… almost hot.”

“Hold onto that for me, would you?” said Azar. “I don’t like keeping all my eggs in one basket. One’s in the bank, and the interest alone is paying for everything here… the other I keep with me. And I think that you should take the third.”

“Azar, that’s crazy. This thing should be-”

“In a bank? In a safe? Zack, it does no good in either of those. If I lose one, I have two others. Just keep it until we meet again.”

“Azar, I appreciate that we’ve been through a lot here, but this is a lot of money. You still don’t know that I won’t just run off with it, abandon you, and drop this in a bank somewhere for myself.”

“Are you saying you will?”

“Well, no… but that’s not really the point, is it? You shouldn’t trust someone with this much money.”

“I shouldn’t,” said Azar. “I will though. Bring it back in one piece for a nice bonus. Or use it for expenses.”

Zack looked at the coin and gulped.

“Azar, this technically makes me one of the wealthiest people ever by proxy.”

“It makes you one of the wealthiest people ever literally, at least while you have it. The oddity with wealth is that you need a place to spend it.”

“I can spend it all I like after I finish this job for the monasteries.”

“You can’t spend it in one place, though,” said Azar. “I’ve looked. Look, this is just for emergencies. And after what I read in that red folder you slid under my door-”

“You’re a fast reader if you read all that already.”

“I was in the habit of double-checking the fine print when I signed on for my hazard pay jobs,” said Azar. “Teleporting rigs don’t build themselves, after all. You need to know what you’re getting into.”

“Fair point. Look, Azar, this is still crazy even if you DO trust me.”

“I’ve earned the right to be eccentric, Gamma, and I’d ask you to respect that. We all have lives we want to live, and I’d like to do things that I like to do. Just like you enjoy helping people, and like Zamona enjoys wrestling. Did you hear about his first match the other night?”

“Yeah, it’s crazy,” said Zack. “He was good, they say… though I think it’s bad for our cover.”

“Of course you do,” said Azar. “Look, it’ll be a while before you can access a bank and take payment from me. Just hold onto this in case you need it, all right?”

Zack narrowed his eyes but Azar stared back with large, friendly eyes that lacked any real concern about the world or the reasonable dangers it contained. Zack eventually closed his eyes.

“Fine,” said Zack. “But you’re takin’ this back as soon as we meet again.”

“Do you think that’s likely? Your notes in the red folder were… thorough.”

“Look, just follow those exactly. I’ll keep in touch eventually, I’ll just have to keep tabs on how it unfolds.”

“Are you sure you can do that? It’s a complicated scheme.”

“Hey, did you forget who you’re talkin’ to?” said Zack, taking a step away and tapping his hat with the coin. “Mind like a steel trap. Look, I don’t wanna delay the fine folks on my plane any more, so…”

“Goodbye, Zack,” said Azar. “And good luck.”

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Episode 136: Interview with an Iceberg

“Don’t stare at his gauntlets.”

Captain Ortega looked over his shoulder at Alsafi and the two laser-toting guards behind her. The hallway outside of Harold Zamona’s door was designed with the elegant simplicity of someone who wanted to intimidate. Most who walked the hallway probably didn’t notice the way that the overhead lights acted as simple guiding lights toward the door, and that the lines of the floor created a similar visual effect. The converging lines on both sides would create a subconscious feeling that the already vaguely-sinister technological hallways were narrowing, getting smaller with every step. The effect was reinforced by the door itself, a large blast door that would have looked more appropriate as an airlock or a hangar gateway, especially when compared to the relatively tame doors that had been present so far in the hallway. Suddenly appearing before a massive door gave the sense that the approacher was getting smaller, even while the hallway was seemingly getting cramped, all without anything changing. Ortega had seen it many times before, and wondered if the Herald had done it on purpose.

“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked. “Does he have disproportionate retribution when people stare at the gauntlets?”

“Oh, no,” said Alsafi. “It’s just rude. Plus I think he’s sensitive about them, between you and me and our two friends here. They can be startling the first time you see them in person.”

The two guards nodded in general agreement.

“Thanks for the heads up, then,” said Ortega.

“No problem!” said Alsafi, tapping a code into the panel by the door, but standing so that Ortega wouldn’t be able to see it. The massive door hissed, clunked, and much of its exterior structure rotated clockwise. The door parted in the middle and the two segments of the door opened into the hallway. Alsafi gently clapped Ortega on the back.

“Have fun in there!” she said, before vanishing from sight. Ortega looked over his shoulder at the two guards.

“Do you have any idea how much it costs every time she does that?”

The two guards shook their heads and one meaningfully pointed her weapon at Captain Ortega. Ortega nodded, turned toward the door, and stepped into the dimly lit hall beyond. Windows on the left side of the hallway provided a quick view of stars, but Ortega wasn’t familiar enough with the Veskid system to use them as a guide to know where he was. The hall ended at another door which slid open as he neared.

The room was arranged like a comfortable conference room. A small table, suitable for a small crowd of people, waited in the center of the room, but only a single chair waited for him on his side. Immediately opposite was Harold Zamona, sitting and smiling patiently.

Harold waved Ortega closer, and Ortega was suddenly struck with just how large this person was. He’d seen Zamona over video feeds and screens before and knew that he would be big and muscular, but the person in front of him was positively giant. It was hard to tell while he sat, but the man must have been at least eight feet tall, if not nine. The arm that was cheerfully waving him to the table was massive, and reminded Ortega of the limbs of certain brutish aliens he’d seen, usually in the bottom of death traps that he was forced to endure. Each arm ended at an enormous gauntlet, one that was thick enough to make his hand seem a third larger than Ortega would guess at based on the size of the arms.

Ortega remembered Alsafi’s words, recovered from his shock, and approached the table to sit.

“Thank you,” said Zamona.

“For showing up here?”

“For saving my life, and the life of everyone on this ship.”

“I didn’t exactly do it alone.”

“No, but you brought the problem to our attention. A smart person would’ve gotten out of here with the chance you had at escaping.”

“Only if escape was the goal the smart person was trying to achieve. I wouldn’t say that I was smart, but I couldn’t let everyone on this ship die. Most of them are under mental manipulation.”

“Not as many as you think.”

“One is too many,” said Ortega. “Even just an emotional push to get someone to do something they want to do is criminal. Punishable by all recognized systems within the Angelor Republic. Thinking otherwise is barbaric.”

“We’ll see if the Angelor Republic agrees with you after it’s part of the Dyson Empire. Our triumph isn’t the result of barbarism, it comes from our Emperor’s technological supremacy.”

“Barbarians are always the first adopters of new technology,” said Ortega. “It’s why they have such an impressive track record. Your empire is still just a fleet of space barbarians committing well-organized acts of piracy and guerrilla warfare.”

Zamona narrowed his eyes and stopped smiling. He steepled his fingers, an action that made his arms take up most of the space on his side of the table.

“I can see we’re done playing nice, then. You should’ve died by now. I killed you twice.”

“No you didn’t.”

“I thought I did. I shot that ship with you and The Soul Survivor, and later I received a transmission from a downed ship in our empire that collected your face and voice. Later we capture you and throw you into a cell. Now, we can analyze the cell and work out how you escaped, and we can also just go over Tan’s logs to see how you got out of his ship’s self destruct sequence. I still don’t know how you and The Soul Survivor escaped from that first meeting, though.”

“Have you found him yet, by the way?”

“Yeah,” said Zamona. “He destroyed a few other ships. Tan’s vessel has been outfitted with some sort of stealth technology. Is he a barbarian too, then?”

“No,” said Ortega. “Doctor Rogers is a genius. An insane one, but a genius. He doesn’t invent out of necessity, he invents on the fly. I might call him a nomad, though, since he’s always on the move. The Emperor’s technology might be able to out pace him, but I don’t think it could ever out innovate him. How did you wind up working or this Dyson fellow, anyway?”

“That’s a long story, Captain. A long, long story that I’m afraid you don’t have time to hear.”

Much earlier, on another world…

Harold Zamona opened the folder and read the information inside. The burning cascade of flaming crystals in the hotel lobby was visible through the conference room’s window, though the sight was less majestic in the more reserved, business-appropriate chamber. He shook his head and leaned back in the reinforced chair that creaked under his weight.

“Seems harsh.”

“You want him gone? This gets him gone.”

Zamona’s head zipped from the document to glare at the woman of orange-flecked stone who stood before him. The Pyrhian almost took a step back, probably not used to speaking to humans who were taller than she was, especially when they were sitting. She recovered quickly and returned the glare.

“Mister Murk is very interested in helping you out, and he sincerely wants to do it without asking any questions. You want the gumshoe out of the way? This’ll get him out of the way.”

“I don’t want him dead. This vine thing looks nasty.”

“It is,” said the Pyrhian. “But it won’t kill him. Keep reading. The later stages of life aren’t as violent, but they’re just as good at their job. It’s how Mister Murk takes care of all of the people who need to disappear that might be useful later. You wouldn’t believe some of the people he’s got in the Underjungles like that.”

“Such as?”

“Such as has-been wrestlers who ask too many questions.”

Zamona paused and looked up from the document. The Pyrhian was glaring, but he could see fear in her eyes. He smiled.

“You’re good at that.”

“At what?”

“The trash talk. Probably needs to come up a lot in your line of work. What’d you say your name was again?”

“Fiamme.”

“Never head of a Pyrhian with a name like that.”

“My fault for picking a human word for a name, then. Does me no good when no human knows it.”

“Why not change it?”

“Hey, I like my name. Would you change yours?”

Zamona shrugged.

“I’m not legally allowed to go by The Iceberg without permission from the appropriate wrestling franchising associations. Don’t know if you’d call that the same thing, though. Speaking of which…”

Fiamme reached into her case and withdrew a dark orange data crystal. She set it onto the table.

“Mister Murk is very, very grateful to have a wrestler of your caliber. Those gauntlets WILL keep you at near-human strength, yes?”

“Yes,” he said, gingerly picking up the crystal with his gauntleted hand. “For now. If I’m using it regularly in fights, though, we could burn through it before the next upgrade’s ready.”

“We’ll try to schedule you so that you won’t have to fight too regularly. While we hammer out some details with your organization, you’ll have to wear a guise other than Iceberg, of course. But we expect that within a month of your first appearance, you could go back.”

“Don’t know if we should do it that soon,” said Zamona. “The secret wrestler approach can draw crowds, get you more money. A well-timed revelation can bring a bigger crowd.”

“Let us worry about that kind of thing. Our cut on Ravelar’s fights are substantial enough that we make sure that they keep the fans coming back for more.”

“Suit yourself,” said Zamon. “And thanks. One less trench coat to worry about, and I start gettin’ back in the ring. It’s win-win.”

“We feel the same way.”

Episode 127: Where Loyalties Lie

Alsafi’s energy blaster built its charge, taking only moments but feeling much longer to Captain Ortega. Just before the discharge, he heard a clack, as if from two blunt objects colliding. The ominous hum stopped, Alsafi shouted “Hey!” and Ortega heard the distinctive sound of an energy blaster hitting the floor. He opened his eyes, already moving to stand.

Ensign Trell swung a steel pipe at Alsafi, who was stumbling back over her own feet. She tripped and hit the ground, reaching for the blaster that was well out of reach. Trell jumped toward her fallen enemy. She pulled the pipe over her head and brought it down, only for Alsafi to vanish an instant before impact. Trell’s pipe hit the ground and she instantly entered a defensive stance, slowly turning in a circle to look around.

“She has some sort of short-range teleportation technology,” said Ortega, stepping out from behind the power generator.

“I can see that,” said Trell, still looking. “If she didn’t, she’d be dead right now. I hate it when people run from a fight.”

“Trell, I don’t think you had to try to kill her.”

“No, YOU don’t have to try to kill her,” said Trell, stopping and looking directly at Ortega. “You’re a statistical outlier. Anyone else with your ideals would have been killed dozens of times by now. I’m not going to rely on your methods when they increase our risk of recapture. Right now, someone knows we’re out of our cells and we have to stop her before it complicates things.”

A high pitched-tone sounded, receded, and sounded again. In the distance, voices could be heard responding to the sound.

“I think we’re too late for that,” said Ortega. “She must’ve transported to some place where she could raise the alarm.”

“We’ll need to move fast, then,” she said.

Ortega nodded and ran to the hall as Trell ran to the power generator. Ortega ran back.

“Trell? We’ll have Dyson conscripts heading this way soon, and we need to save Captain Calen.”

“No time,” she said. “But there’s still time to destroy this ship.”

“What? How?”

“I’ll create a feedback loop through this generator.”

“That generator doesn’t have the power to do that,” said Ortega. “Believe me, I’ve seen my fair share of ship sabotages. I’ve CAUSED my fair share of ship sabotages. This generator has neither the output nor the lack of safeguards to-”

“Put all generators like this together, though, and?”

“It… still wouldn’t be enough, would it? At best you’d disable most ship systems, and likely none of the ones meant for core operations.”

“Yes, but then you wind up with excess power,” said Trell, ripping off a hatch on the side of the generator. “It all has to be shunted somewhere. These generators can help to mitigate such problems when working together, but if someone knows what they’re doing and spends some time operating on them…”

“That’s why you took so long getting here!” said Ortega. “I thought you were caught or lost. But… you still couldn’t have gotten to them all.”

“I should only need the five I’ve been able to get to,” she said. “With any luck, this ship and everyone on it will be dead in less than three minutes.”

“Trell, we can’t do that. Most of these conscripts aren’t themselves right now.”

Trell continued to cross wires and move circuitry. She looked over her shoulder, only slowing her work rather than stopping it.

“And who’s going to stop me?”

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack entered the Azar’s suite, and saw his client staring out the window, staring at Ravelar’s sunset. The blue and orange glow of Ravelar’s late afternoon sun made Azar’s tan more noticeable than it might have been on a world with a Sun that humans thought of as more “traditional.” Zack’s tan would have been visible anywhere without needing unconventional light sources, but he was naturally quiet enough that Azar hadn’t heard him enter.

Zack reopened the door and closed it again, louder, and Azar turned around.

“Zack!” he said. “Good to see you. Sorry for interrupting your dinner.”

“No problem,” said Zack. “The live show isn’t great tonight.”

“Really? The fire juggler? I saw the show last night, and thought it was good.”

“Juggling’s not my style,” said Zack. “How can I help you?”

“I received some information from Harry today. He informed me that there might have been an oversight in our operations. A conflict of interest.”

“Did he now?” said Zack. He tossed his hat onto a cushion on one of the two sofas in Azar’s room and sat next to it. “Well, I’m sure whatever he’s done is fine if we just clear it up. Unless you’re talking about me, of course.”

“Oh, you’re aware, then?”

“No, but I assume Zamona wouldn’t care about it if he’d found dirt on himself, and I know he didn’t find anything on Barris. I looked. I’m the only one left.”

“Zack, your work for me has been… amazing. I don’t know if I’d still be alive if not for you.”

Zack shrugged.

“I do what I can. BristleCorp might’ve settled for putting you in the poorhouse, though.”

“And they still might. Zack, were you aware that the Desperate Measures Agency is a subsidiary of BristleCorp?”

Zack leaned back in the sofa and narrowed his eyes, giving the question a lot of thought.

“Yes,” he finally said. “I knew it was relevant, but I didn’t want to worry you.”

“I see,” said Azar. “Zack, finding out about it from Harry wasn’t exactly calming.”

“Sorry. The Desperate Measures Agency is good about keeping agents from interfering with cases. I felt the conflict of interest would actually help you. The DMA wouldn’t hire any assassins or detectives to look for you since I was on the case.”

“And it’s certainly worked out that way. Zack, I would have liked to know this sooner. There won’t be any more surprises like this, will there?”

“I doubt it,” said Zack. “I’m always gonna have secrets though, Azar. I can’t think of any that’d matter to you, but secrets keep me working.”

“That makes sense. Still… if the Desperate Measures Agency takes too close of a look at you here on Ravelar, it may tip my location to them. Even with me as an unlisted client.”

“I doubt anyone’d pay that much attention to me, but it’s always possible.”

“Have you considered taking on any other assignments here on Ravelar?”

Zack smiled and nodded.

“Azar, I do believe that I’ve been a bad influence on you. That’s borderline devious.”

Episode 118: Reverb

The Soul Survivor’s proclamation rang through Carmen’s headset. The remains of the Dyson vessel were starting to drift harmlessly through space, and the other ship was twisting through space to have a more direct view of the three racers. Standing on top of her asteroid, with the green clouds and oceans of Mandrake dominating most of her horizon, there was more violet in the explosion than she expected and the clash of colors was almost disorienting.

“We’re not just gonna take that, are we?” asked Vince, his voice coming through her channel.

“What?”

“They were just about to give us everything you wanted, and then someone claiming to be ‘The Soul Survivor’ just swoops in and blows ‘em out of the sky? I mean, I’m not exactly thrilled with the idea of tangoing with The Soul Survivor… if it’s actually him… but I’m not just gonna surrender.”

“Surrender: never,” said Xorn’Tal.

“I like your thinking,” said Carmen.

“Task: doable?”

“He’s only got one ship,” said Carmen. “One ship that’s the same model as the six we aced before the big one came through to make the deal. It’s not just doable, it’s already done.”

“Might I interject?” came the sonorous voice of the Soul Survivor.

Carmen inhaled and she almost thought she felt the chill of the void just beyond her atmosphere.

“Channel: private,” said Xorn’Tal. “Access: secure.”

“Please,” said The Soul Survivor. “Intelligent schoolchildren hack channels more secure than this for a lark. I am no child, and it’s a minor annoyance for a mind like mine. I’m aware of, and capable of translating, all transmissions using standard technologies. Encryption would need to mimic the background radiation of the universe to pass my notice, and there are more problems with that than a mind like yours could guess. Be sure that I was listening to your conversation even before you were aware of me. Feel free to attack with all of your petrakinetic skill, but know that I have accounted for every eventuality! There is no way that you could defeat me.”

Silence rang over the headset. Carmen looked at Vince’s sleek, almost aerodynamic asteroid, and Xorn’Tal’s vine-covered rock before looking back at The Soul Survivor’s vessel. Total silence finally fell, and Carmen realized that there had been a substance to the space between the silence now and when he finished speaking seconds earlier. He was adding reverb to his channel.

“So, we’re just supposed to believe you?” said Carmen.

“Excuse me?” said The Soul Survivor. Carmen listened again; there was definitely a faint reverberation. If what they said about The Soul Survivor was true, his voice could sound like whatever he wanted. Making his voice generic enough as to be familiar but also echo so faintly that you almost didn’t notice was an intentional choice on his part.

“Why should I believe an interplanetary criminal? You’re a notorious liar. Saying that there’s no hope sounds like a trick.”

“I wouldn’t lie about this, cretin,” said the voice of The Soul Survivor.

“I think this floating scrap-heap just insulted me,” said Carmen.

“I think you’re right,” said Vince.

“What do you say we give him a chance to survive a crash landing on Mandrake?”

“You fools don’t know what you’re in for,” said The Soul Survivor.

“Buddy, neither do you,” said Carmen.

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack scrolled through the time line on the holographic screen, taking note of all of the dates and situations that had been marked in green. Azar sat in the most comfortable chair in his suite and watched Zack manipulating the files while Harold Zamona gingerly attempted to peel an orange without turning it into a pulpy goo. His strength-sapping gauntlets were at full power, but he wasn’t going to take any chances.

“I think we’ve hit most of the big ones,” said Zack. “We need to do more work, but we’re all exhausted. Let’s take the night off and finish in the morning.”

“Finally,” said Zamona. “No offense, Gamma, but I’ve had surgeries more fun than this.”

“Hey, if my work was fun I couldn’t make a living doing it. The movies always skip to the end of the paper trail, but here in the real world we’ve gotta walk over the whole thing. The good news is we got a lot of the paperwork taken care of today, and tomorrow we should be able to knock out the rest and relax before lunchtime.”

“Thank you, Zachary,” said Azar. “I look forward to being done with this once and for all.”

“Me too,” said Zack. “Understand, not all of this will be admissible. The large scale energy projects and focal-point teleportation aspects alone would still be classified since some of that work was through government projects.”

“Of course,” said Azar. “I’ll have to be quiet on my Tidal Lock technologies work until well after I’ve died of old age, if I live that long.”

“We should all be so lucky,” said Zamona, finally tearing a large fragment of peel off of the orange.

“Need any help with that?” asked Zack.

“No, I’ve got it. Azar was able to improve the coordination servos. I still need to be careful, but I want to get through this.”

“Whoever designed his most recent pair of gauntlets did a fine job, but they were clearly working with either time restraints or budget restraints,” said Azar. “Fortunately, neither is a concern for me anymore. If you two will excuse me, I’d like to go to the dining hall and place my order.”

Zack and Zamona nodded, and Azar stood, adjusted his tie in a mirror by the suite’s entrance, and left through the sliding door. Zack flipped the files closed and ejected the data crystal from Azar’s display table.

“I think we’ve found all the obvious attempts on his life that we’ll need,” said Zack. “Even if they weren’t intentional, the gross misconduct alone should make BristleCorp want to write him off as a loss before moving on.”

“So, when do you let us know the real plan?”

Zack looked at Azar who triumphantly finished removing the final segment of peel from his orange. He held it up to Zack, who shook his head.

“I had a big lunch. What real plan?”

“How’re you getting Azar out of this?”

“Did you not notice the last six hours we spent finding all the so-called accidents where BristleCorp tried finishing off the employees who were living too long?”

“No, I noticed it. I also think you think that even if we get an open and shut case that it won’t mean anything.”

“Well, it’ll be tough, but I think we can do it.”

“You really think BristleCorp’ll just roll over like that? I don’t. I’ve dealt with big companies before, and ones a lot smaller than BristleCorp can keep on going after something like this. You need something bigger to take ‘em on. A government, or another, bigger company.”

“That’s what we’re doing,” said Zack. “We’re getting the government to step in.”

“It won’t finish ‘em off. We need to chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out before they can do it to us.”

“We don’t need to go that far,” said Zack. “We wouldn’t have the resources even if we did. We’re trying to make them not want to, uh… chew us up by being unappetizing, or by being too much work to catch. If you take more calories to eat than the predator gets for eating you, it’ll learn to stop hunting you.”

“Yeah, that’d work if this was all being done sensibly. But we’ve also talked about how BristleCorp’s acting for spite here. Couldn’t say why, but I think what it means is clear: our offensive won’t offend nearly enough.”

“What’ve you got in mind?” said Zack.

“Nothing yet. That’s why I asked what you had in mind. Listen, I know you don’t trust me, and that’s fine. I’m new to this outfit. But I like Azar. He’s one of maybe four good, honest people that I’ve met in my life. And I want him to win. This thing you’re planning… this counter lawsuit, I don’t think he’ll win. It won’t get the job done.”

“Well, as soon as you get a better plan, let me know. Listen, I’m gonna hit the hay. I need to get up early so that we can finish up the work tomorrow. Take care.”

Zack left through the same door that Azar had used, leaving Zamona alone in the suite. He walked to the display table and activated it. The files that Zack carried were safe on the data crystal, but Zamona could still look up information on a few pertinent details.

“No offense, Zack, but I think Azar needs to be helped by a champ.”

Azar peeled a segment of the orange away from the fruit and popped it into his mouth while the data started to fill the space above the table.

Episode 109: The View From Above

Carmen felt the crunch of the ship on the opposite side of her asteroid and scanned the skies for the next target. The nearly crippled law enforcement vessel that she, Vince and Xorn’Tal saved had given up trying to convince them to leave, and had instead left to find a dock where it could be repaired. More of the strange ships had blasted into the system near Mandrake, and most had ignored the racers, but four others had stopped to attack. Each racer had landed the final, crushing strike that left the ships drifting in the vacuum on two so far, and Carmen was eager to get to three before Vince or Xorn’Tal could.

Another ship neared Mandrake, bearing the same logo that Carmen had started to recognize, half of an eye’s outer edge with an entire pupil in the center. The ship was much larger than the flimsy fighter ships that she had been tearing apart.

“We might not want to take on that one,” said Vince.

“Show some backbone, will ya?”

“New ship: heavy structure,” said Xorn’tal. “Hull: strong. Aerodynamics: unimportant. Asteroid structure: weaker.”

“Maybe yours is,” said Carmen.

“Hey, Carmen, that shangmere lady carved up your ride pretty badly. It’s been a rush fighting off… whatever these are, but we’ve been taking some damage too. It won’t take them long to figure out that they can just target the single, mostly defenseless life form on each asteroid to end the problem. Besides, the police got away, so we’re not protecting the Phantom Matador data anymore.”

Carmen started to respond but a public channel began broadcasting. She switched feeds just as the incoming message started.

“Petrakinetic racers,” said the strong voice on the other end of the line, “do not interfere. We are the first salvo of The Dyson Empire’s attack on the Veskid system. We respect your desire to stand your ground. Understand that our fight is not with members of the federation, but with the authorities of Veskid.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were phrasing that to try and side with us by making the big tamales on Veskid seem like a common enemy,” said Carmen.

“What?” said the voice. “No, I’m not.”

“Seems like you are,” said Vince. “No different than corporations who try to look cool by paying celebrities to say they were paid to endorse their product.”

“Manipulation: not antagonistic: perpetual.”

“…What?” said the voice on the other end.

“He says that just because you’re trying to be hip, it doesn’t really mean that you’re wrong,” said Carmen. “It doesn’t mean that you’re right, either.”

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter,” said the voice. “We’ll make a deal, though: you stop smashing our ships, we don’t blast your asteroids out of the sky. You can’t stop us from invading, but we’ll let you steer clear.”

“Not enough,” said Carmen. “I want you to stop passing by Mandrake. Don’t come near this planet when you invade the system.”

“Seriously?” said the voice. “It’s a major path, right on our route.”

“Look, either stay far enough from Mandrake that you’re not showing up on local channels, or know that you’re going to have to slow down to tangle with us until you take us down. Yeah, you’ll probably blast us out of the sky eventually, but how sure are you that it’ll be soon enough to keep us from being a liability?”

“Pretty sure,” said the voice. “I’m especially certain if we don’t let the first few waves against you be the model you’re used to fighting.”

“You’re telling me your military plans’ll seriously be hampered by going a bit to the left or the right for however long Mandrake’s orbit keeps it in your way?”

The voice went silent, but in the background Carmen heard muffled discussions. Soon, a new voice was heard.

“We’ll consider your offer,” said the new voice. “While we consider, would you give us time for this vessel to retrieve the ships you’ve disabled? We’re detecting life signs, but they may need medical attention.”

“Deal,” said Carmen. “Signing off for now, call us when you make up your mind.”

Carmen switched off the main channel and opened the private one between herself, Xorn’Tal and Vince Flashman.

“I don’t trust ‘em,” said Vince.

“Obviously,” said Carmen. “They’ll try to push through before too long.”

“Consideration: withdrawal?”

“Wouldn’t be a crazy idea to pull back,” said Vince.

“Not just yet,” said Carmen. “I think we can slow ‘em down here for a bit longer.”

“Xorn’Tal and I can. Is your asteroid really up to it?”

Carmen concentrated and felt the structure of the Kinetic Kuiper. It was bad. There was a lot of density to it, but it wouldn’t be long before she was juggling multiple objects instead of propelling a single one. It was still repairable, but only just.

“It’ll have to be,” she said. “I’ve still gotta get my friend off that planet.”

“With just an asteroid? With no landing or retrieval gear?”

Carmen blinked.

“I’ll solve that problem when we get to it,” she said.

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack looked through his binoculars, an old fashioned approach that didn’t leave an electromagnetic signature like most long-range visual scanners and didn’t leave cyber footprints like redirected satellites. From his camouflaged tent on scenic Mount Porthinel he counted the seconds while watching the resort hotel that housed some of the richest and most celebrated people who ever wanted to relax without answering any uncomfortable questions.

Another thirty seconds and the doors to the gated pool area opened to reveal Azar and the towering form of Harold Zamona behind him, right on schedule. Over the last month, Zack had found the six best places on the mountain for observing Azar and Zamona. It had been rough going, but he was willing to accept the fact that Zamona legitimately meant no harm to Azar after so long. The two had enjoyed the luxuries offered by Ravelar, and Zamona hadn’t once done anything suspicious. Either Zamona was playing a very, very long game, or he was genuinely willing to assist Azar on this life of leisurely adventure.

Zack’s timer chimed. He took a deep breath and put away his binoculars. It would take him time to get off the mountain and even longer to walk to the space port, plus he should add time to dress in a manner that would make it look like he hadn’t been camping on a mountain for a month. He’d given himself two hours, but it would likely only take Azar and Zamona ten minutes, giving them plenty of time to enjoy some poolside fun. He’d have more of a head start than he’d need.

***

“He didn’t send a message saying that he’d missed the flight, did he?” asked Azar.

“No,” said Zamona, watching the passengers collecting their luggage. “But unless he’s not with the passengers of the Daring Dozen, he’s just not here.”

“I don’t like this,” said Azar, watching a blue-skinned cross between a mosquito and a jackal retrieving its luggage from the baggage claim.

“I know.”

“He should have let me pay for it all.”

“And miss my chance at testing out my infiltration technique?” asked Zack, walking up behind them. Azar spun in place, laughed at the sight of Zack, and gave the detective a quick hug. Harold Zamona merely smirked.

“You’re telling me you got on that plane without anyone knowing?”

“I had an earlier flight, actually,” said Zack. “I just knew that I’d be presentable by the time the Daring Dozen was disembarking. You don’t want to see a person right after they’ve been hiding by a Pestle Reactor for half a week.”

“You were hiding by the Pestle Reactor?” said Azar.

“No, but it’s fun to tell people that I can,” said Zack.

“I was about to say, that could cause brain damage, if not outright death,” said Azar. “I should know, some of my money came from working near an unshielded one for two hours a day to help Bristlecorp’s project finish on time.”

“You wouldn’t believe the things this guy did,” said Azar. “He’s been telling me all of the things he got his payment for. Can you believe they’d send someone with three Ph.D.’s into space just to do some soldering?”

“Absolutely,” said Zack. “But only because I’ve been doing my homework, and having a few other people do homework for me so that my poking around wouldn’t raise too many red flags. They needed the best and brightest to do the work, and with all the ethical concerns about programming artificial intelligences to be willing to toss their lives down the drain for projects on this level, they went with good old fashioned human laborers for suspiciously large payouts. Azar, we always knew that you were lucky to survive there, but I think I’ve found evidence that you’ve been even luckier than you knew. Some of those projects were all-but designed to kill off workers before they finished their work.”

“What?” said Azar, his brow creasing.

“Absolutely,” said Zack. “Don’t worry, though, it might be our ace in the hole. Sister Barris and I were hoping to find evidence that would link BristleCorp to the price on your head in a way that would make them hyper-liable if anything shy of natural causes did you in, but we weren’t expecting quite so much. Seriously, Barris is good at her job.”

“She does seem diligent,” said Azar. “She could make sense of a document that I’d never be able to understand.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, smart guy,” said Zack. “Or her, either. Some of the riskier documents she procured through less than legal methods. I won’t tell you that she almost strangled the friend of someone who pulled a gun on her, and I won’t tell you that she now knows that her WimpHelm will, in fact, stop a knife.”

“You sure you need me on this security job?” asked Zamona.

“Absolutely,” said Azar. “Zack can’t be both here and investigating my case back home.”

“Right,” said Zack, thinking over the last month of mountain-side camping and spying on people who were paying for the privilege of not being spied upon. “Though with some of the dirt uncovered by the people I’ve been asking to do side research for me, it’s possible that I might be able to stick around for a bit longer than planned.”

“Excellent!” said Azar. “It’ll be wonderful to have you around.”

“Is it necessary, though?” asked Zamona. “A third party might draw more attention.”

“There’s a little risk, yes,” said Zack. “Unfortunately, I think it’s necessary. There are a few things I need to find out, and you’ll be the best person to ask, Azar.”

“I’ll help however I can,” said Azar.

“Good,” said Zack. “Because we’re going to figure out each and every way that BristleCorp tried to kill you.”

Episode 100: Jungle Jaunt

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

“Tourist.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait,” said Ortega. “That’s not-”

“Hydromill active,” said Doctor Carnegie.

“Begin the hydration.”

“Wait!” said Ortega.

The three researchers froze, each watching Captain Ortega carefully.

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

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

“Is… no. No, there’s no danger.”

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” asked Doctor Williams.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much earlier, on another world…

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

“Ugh, there?” said Zack.

“Don’t want to go to Ravelar?”

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

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

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

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

“I think it’s a risk,” said Zack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Naturally.”

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

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

“Is that Faulkner?” asked Harold.

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

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

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

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

Zack tapped the table and stared at Harold.

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 91: Of Sthenites and Strawberries

Zack stared at the sharp tip of the arrow. It was a very clean cut, and metallic, made by some factory. It had a realness to it that dwarfed the now-distant threat of the Desperate Measures Agency. The woman pointing it at him was serious… he either needed to get off the world immediately, which wasn’t an option yet, or get way from her.

”Starprey?” he said, repeating the word she’d just called him. The meaning was obvious, but he needed a few moments for his brain to spin into gear.

“It’s what the Sthenites call offworlders,” she said. “They come from the stars, and because of what they’ve done and tried to do before they’ve earned the penalty of being hunted for sport. Allegedly for food if we’re talking about the Azurebacks, but they say a lot of things about those people.”

“So when you kill me, you won’t be handing me over for dinner then, Miss…?”

“Chala,” she said.

“Never heard that name before.”

“It used to be Charlotte, but Chala sounded more like the names they have here, so it’s what I go by.”

“How long’ve you been working on gaining their trust?”

“A long time now,” said Chala. “Not really your concern.”

“Where do you get the arrows?”

Chala raised an eyebrow.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s a strange arrow.”

“It’s a common design.”

“I’m sure if I went to a sporting goods store on Veskid I could buy some just like that, yeah,” said Zack. “But you say you’ve been here a while, long enough to gain trust from societies that don’t trust offworlders. Did you stockpile a huge number of arrows before you came here, or do you have some way of making them? A little shop or machine that can make fresh ammunition?”

“Arrows can be retrieved and repaired,” she said.

“Which would be a lot easier with a shop. Do the, uh… Sthenites? Do the Sthenites approve of industry as long as it’s small and on the personal level?”

“Of course,” she said. “They know the value of technology, they’re not stupid. They have metalworking, wheels, written language, agriculture, everything a culture needs to thrive and advance.”

“So when you land and set up a place for yourself, they see your machinery and think of you as… what, a blacksmith?”

“Let’s not focus on me anymore, let’s get back to you. Can you, or can you not, call for your ride now?”

“No,” said Zack. “There’s no network here, and she won’t be back in range for a few hours at the earliest.”

Chala frowned, as if thinking over options. Then she released the arrow.

Much earlier, on another world…

Harold Zamona came to the slow realization that he was waking up.

His head hurt. He didn’t know how a pain could be dull and distant while also feeling strong and immediate. He lifted his hands to his face and felt the strange sensation of metal against his forehead, a reminder that the gauntlets were still, as always, a part of his life. It was fortunate that his incredible muscular strength also came with increased physical durability; even with the gauntlets, such idle motions would have caused many self-inflicted calamities otherwise.

He could smell strawberries? And dust. Where was he?

“I think he’s coming out of it,” said a voice, a man.

“I’m going on the record… again… as saying this is a bad idea,” said another man.

“We know,” said a woman. “We’re ready if it is.”

Harold shook his head and, somehow, forced his eyes open. It was hazy and shadowy, but things were coming into focus. Soon, two shadows in front of him congealed into the forms of a man and a woman, standing in a room filled with stacks of crates and boxes. The woman was wearing an outfit that reminded him of a nun’s habit crossed with a futuristic knight’s armor, and the other was wearing a green trench coat with a matching hat that, given its antenna, could probably connect to any local networks and might have its own computerized functions.

He felt a surge of adrenaline and almost jumped at the two, but resisted the urge when he realized that the first was pointing some sort of energy rifle at him, and the second was lowering two Purcellian striker pistols his way.

“Sister Barris and Zack Gamma,” he said. “The lawyer who would help Azar when no one else would, and the investigation and protection specialist who was hired by an unknown client right when Barris and Azar needed to drop off the grid. This is good.”

Barris exhaled, as if she’d been worried.

“Why?” she asked. “I’m glad you think it’s good, but it doesn’t look like things are going your way.”

“It means I didn’t tear down the wall of that laundromat for nothing,” he said. “You’ve gotta make quick decisions in this line of work, and it’s always good to know you made the right one.”

“Doesn’t look right from where we’re standing,” said Zack. “You’ve put us in an awful position here, frosty.”

“Frosty?” said Harold.

“As in frozen,” said Zack. “You’re the Iceberg.”

“I’m not anymore,” said Harold. “It’s just Harold now. Or Harry. They might call me for another special night, but the wrestling life’s effectively behind me. Where’s Azar?”

“Why should we answer any questions?” asked Barris. “You’re the one who invaded our hideaway.”

“I heard three voices,” said Harold. “And there’s two of you. Who’s the third person? I assume it’s Azar, but if I’m wrong, just let me know.”

Zack and Barris shared a quick glance.

“So… Azar’s here, then,” said Zamona. He started to stand, but Zack took a more definite aiming stance.

“Stay right there,” he said. “Stay right on the floor, or Barris and I send you back to dreamland, and this time you won’t even get the chance to make a return trip.”

“Why did you bring me here, then?” asked Zamona. “Why not end me at the laundromat? Or just leave me there while you made your getaway?”

“The police would have found you,” said Barris. “Questions would be asked, charges filed, and anyone who was looking for us who wasn’t already hot on your trail would get that much closer.”

“Then drop me off on a park bench or side alley on the way to wherever we are instead of bringing me the whole way,” he said.

“Believe me, I wanted to,” said Zack.

“Then why didn’t you?”

“I asked them not to,” said another voice.

Harold turned his head. There was a small passage leading away from the dusty room, a hallway obscured by shadows and a stack of boxes. What were all the boxes in this room for? A dark face was peaking out from the hallway, a scruffy, grizzled face that had seen a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice. Azar.

Zack rolled his eyes.

“Would you mind?” he said. “Get out of here. We’re trying to keep you away from the dangerous bounty hunter.”

“We’re not getting anywhere,” said Azar. “Harold, is it? How did you find where Gamma and Barris were keeping me?”

“I checked with the DMA to find likely agents who were working protection jobs,” he said. “Worked out that most of ‘em weren’t protecting you, and narrowed down the remainders until Gamma was the most likely person to follow.”

“See?” said Gamma. “Exactly what I told you he would’ve done. Now, can we please shoot him and follow his suggestion of leaving him somewhere that we aren’t hiding?”

Harold tensed. The lawyer and the detective were both good shots from what he remembered, but they needed focus. If he moved quickly he could probably disarm one of them without the other shooting him. That might buy him all the leverage he needed to reach Azar and escape. He prepared to leap…

“Wait,” said Azar. “One other question for him. How much is Bristlecorp offering for me?”

“A lot,” said Zamona. “Anyone who finds you is not only going to retire, but they’ll retire well. They could buy a small planet without hurting their savings.”

“That’s a lot of money,” said Azar. “What if I offered to pay you instead?”

Harold smirked.

“I know you’ve got a lot of cash,” said Zamona. “I don’t think you want to pay me as much money as it would take.”

“Maybe not in a lump sum,” said Azar. “What if I paid you in employment? Mister Gamma and Sister Barris are wonderful at what they do, but extra protection couldn’t hurt.”

“My rate’s pretty high,” said Iceberg.

“Hang on,” said Zack. “Azar, a word? Barris, keep an eye on Harry there.”

Zack walked to the hallway, stepping around the strawberry-scented cartons. He leaned conspiratorially toward Azar.

“I get what you’re trying to do here,” said Zack. “I really do. But here’s the thing: we’re not on the same tier as those three punks who tried to jump you in the alley anymore.”

“They weren’t punks,” said Azar. “They were financially troubled, and desperate for any way out.”

“Right, okay. But Harold Zamona isn’t destitute. He’s not poor. He’s still making money from merchandising. He might have some financial troubles now and then, a lot of former celebrities do, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard of any. He’s one of the smart ones. People like him aren’t bounty hunters because they need the cash, they’re bounty hunters because they’re bored. And even if I’m wrong? You can’t just pay more than your bounty to every bounty hunter. I know a Virellium Coin is worth a lot of money, and your interest is crazy, but how many until you lose a coin? Twelve? Twenty? Fifty? Eventually the bounty’ll still be on your head, and you won’t have any money to make it worthwhile.”

“I don’t need to pay everyone who comes my way,” said Azar. “And I certainly don’t plan on paying in just money.”

Azar pushed his way past Zack, stepping into the room. Harold looked up, but Barris kept her eyes and her rifle aimed his way.

“I don’t like being on the run,” said Azar. “I don’t want to be enemies. My offer stands. Join me, Harold Zamona. I don’t know how long this will last, but until it’s all over I need protection, and I don’t want to keep secluding myself in places like this.”

“Where are we, by the way?” said Zamona.

“That’s not important,” said Barris and Gamma, simultaneously rushing to speak before Azar could answer.

“The point is, I need someone like you,” said Azar. “I’m making Barris accept a payment comparable to what I’d be paying an overtime lawyer, even though I think she’s just donating it back to that order of hers. Gamma takes a standard DMA fee of the same amount. If you joined our organization here, we might have something to work with. Barris running her legal work, Gamma keeping his eyes and ears open everywhere, and you for more, uh…”

Azar nodded at the gauntlets.

“…you for more hands-on security, if you don’t my mind saying so. These two tell me that you’re quite strong.”

“The strongest,” said Azar. “Sounds like quite an adventure.”

“It hasn’t been yet,” said Azar. “It’s dull waiting around for people to kill me. But I want to stop surviving and start living. If you’re there to protect me, that might be an option.”

The room became quiet. In the distance, the sound of some machinery added to the scent of strawberries in the air.

“Let’s say I said yes,” said Azar. “When would I be starting?”

“Right away,” said Azar.

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 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 73: Working It Out

Zack ran across the surface of the Phantom Matador’s asteroid, moving as quickly as he could while trying to keep it from being obvious that he was just running to Xorn’Tal’s asteroid. In truth there were fewer than two hundred yards between himself and the vine alien’s rock, but the curvature of the horizon made it appear further away. Nectra seemed smart, but easily distracted. He hoped that she wouldn’t know what was happening until she was at Carmen’s asteroid and he was either on Xorn’Tal’s or, even better, halfway to Mandrake.

He ran to the top of a ridge and jumped to clear extra distance, but felt a wave of vertigo that pulled him down faster than he expected. Zack slammed into the ground and picked himself up. Half-remembered equations from school involving terms like “tidal forces” and “inverse square law” ran through his head, and he desperately wished he could remember exactly how they worked.

He looked up and could start to see Mandrake peeking over the corner of the ground below him, ground that had previously been above him back when he’d been on Carmen’s asteroid. A short distance away, strange vines colored in bright greens and oranges stretched from another rock, vines that loosely tethered the two asteroids together. Periodically the vine-covered asteroid would bob outward, creating a small chasm, only to have the two rocks be pulled together again with a tremor. Zack swallowed nervously, picked himself up and continued running, closing the distance.

Another sensation of vertigo flowed over him as he neared what he hoped was the place where the two gravity wells overlapped. Under any other set of circumstances he might wonder if there was something medically wrong as he felt pulled “down” in two different directions. He took a deep breath, picked a vine, and jumped.

Zack had overestimated just how strong the gravity “beneath” him was, and flew through the air much farther than anticipated. He frantically grabbed for his target vine before he sailed past it, and felt the leathery, sinuous textures of the alien vegetation from Xorn’Tal’s homeworld (or, alternatively, vegetation that was a part of Xorn’Tal. Zack wasn’t sure how it worked with this particular species, or even what Xorn’Tal’s species was for that matter.) His velocity yanked him toward Xorn’Tal’s asteroid furiously, making him wish that he’d been wearing gloves.

Another rumble shook through the vine as the two asteroids bumped together again, and Zack was relieved that traveling by vine proved more viable than running up to the physical point of connection between the two landmasses. He took a moment to collect his bearings, looked along the vine to the vegetation-choked rock ahead, and started the climb.

***

Nectra was terrified and elated.

It was a common misconception that her species could fly. Most alien races who came from planets with bird or insect analogues recognized wings for what they were, and reasoned that a species with wings could probably attain flight, despite the awkward weight-to-wingspan issue. A very tiny percentage of the shangmere population had the right combination of weight, muscle, wing-type, drive, and recklessness required to attain tiny increases in altitude, but everyone else had to be happy gliding (or, if they were wealthy, purchasing propulsion jackets or anti-gravity harnesses to supplement their wings to the point that they could truly fly.)

Low gravity situations could affect the nature of things, however, and while Nectra knew in her head that she was effectively just using her wings to control a jump from one place that would let her land on another, the actual flapping motions were similar enough that she felt very much like the dreams of flying she used to have when she was little. She was terrified that she’d hit a point that lacked atmosphere and ruin the illusion, but the good news was that Carmen’s asteroid was approaching so fast that it wouldn’t matter either way.

She spun in the air so that her feet were pointing “down”, opened her wings wide to catch what she could of the incredibly thin air, and pulled out her staff to help with the balance. Carrying the Phantom Matador in her hands would make an already tricky maneuver borderline dangerous, but she was convinced that she could handle it.

The human over her shoulder moved suddenly, and she repositioned her staff to try and keep the Matador secured.

“Unhand me!” he said.

“No!” she said. “No, no I can’t do that!”

A voice in her head told her that she’d just missed an amazing opportunity for being smug, and that saying something like ‘You really don’t want me to do that’ would help her seem more cool and collected than she felt, but she shushed the voice.

The human moved again and she heard a gasp.

“No! My asteroid…”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “You were knocked out, and we didn’t think you’d recover this fast! We had to leave quickly, or else all the atmosphere and gravity would start going crazy.”

Nectra hit the ground, hard. Her clawed feet helped to absorb the impact, but she still wound up rolling forward. She’d imagined a graceful somersault in her mind, but wound up face-planting into the ground and sliding. She dropped the Matador, but in an affront to everything fair about the situation he managed to perform the exact kind of roll that she’d visualized, ending with a hop back onto his feet. He looked over his shoulder and narrowed his eyes at her, contemplating.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I think I grazed my cheek. And arms. I’m… fine, but I need something in case of infection.”

“The odds of such injuries becoming infected in an environment like this are infinitesimal,” he said, turning to face her. He knelt down and looked over her face studiously.

“It all looks superficial, too,” he said. “I think that there’s a good chance of rapid healing.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s hard to say anything with certainty, but I believe so. Regarding infections, it may come down to the sort of environment that the racer maintains. Upon which asteroid did you alight?”

“I… don’t know, I don’t really keep track of sports,” she said. “Kinetic something?”

“Kinetic Kuiper?”

“That sounds right.”

He stared at her for a moment before looking over her shoulder. His asteroid was still visible, but already falling away, with two other asteroids crushing it between them, as if trying to manhandle it into a forced landing.

“My vessel is lost, at least for now,” he said. “But perhaps… the time has come to meet Miss Shift herself.”

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” she said. “Zack Gamma told me that you were causing problems for the racers, she might not want to see you.”

“And where is Mister Gamma?”

“He was running to the other side of your asteroid to try to use Mandrake’s gravity to pull him down so that he could more easily jump from your asteroid to this one.”

“Carmen isn’t on a vector to reach the other side,” said the Matador.

“Then why would he…” Nectra paused. She turned and looked back at the asteroid. A moment later she yelped and held a hand up to her mouth. She looked down, glared at the ground and wrung her hands around her staff.

“He tricked me. He could have just gone to another asteroid. Probably… the leafy one, it was closer.”

“People in his business earn their keep by outsmarting people more intelligent than they,” said the Matador. “It’s a rare talent, and useful. I take it you have business with him?”

“I need to kill him.”

“And you suggest that I cross a line by merely approaching my favored racer? Your priorities are skewed, and possibly psychotic.”

“I’m not crazy,” she said, turning to face him. He met her stare, examining her not-quite-human face and seeing her large eyes.

“I didn’t mean that literally,” he said, finally. “It was a poetic descriptor. Though… there’s a bite to your response. You may not be truly mad, but I recommend therapy. See if you can talk through some of it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be going.”

Nectra nodded and watched him walk away. After he cleared a ridge on the asteroid’s surface, she turned back to the sky to look at the green, vegetative asteroid.

Much earlier, on another world…

Harold wasn’t a practiced investigator, but he was thorough. He crossed the ninth name off of the list of DMA Agents who’d been hired for protection work. It was hard to keep tabs on people who were used to working from the shadows, but he was, in time, able to figure out who most of the dozen were protecting, and once he knew that he also knew that they weren’t protecting Azar.

Three names remained on the alphabetical list, names he hadn’t crossed off either because he couldn’t locate who they were protecting or because there was something off about their protections. The fourth name on the list, Fulgurite Octave, was a pyrhian cyborg who went to a bar in a spaceport every Thursday for the last three weeks. From all visual signs, it looked as if Fulgurite Octave wasn’t working at all, but he went to a bank after the bar each time. Thanks to retrieved receipts, Harold could tell that he was depositing money each time, over and above what he was receiving from the Desperate Measures Agency for his alleged protection work. Azar had a lot of money to pay, and an extra fee might be helpful to maintain loyalty from hired protectors, and paying generously for loyalty was a habit Azar had developed if his previous employees were any indication.

The sixth name on the list was Hroob Hrowak, one of the only known surviving Vandecites. Hroob seemed to be protecting Alexander Hirsch, a politician trying to run for a position on the city council. He was running on platforms that could put a damper on a number of the illicit activities in town and elsewhere on the planet, and some very dangerous people had started to offer high prices for Hirsch’s head. Unfortunately, evidence from a bribed mortician earlier in the week suggested that Alexander Hirsch was already dead, so the person that Hroob Hrowak was speaking to through the back door of the Hirsch Recycling Plant couldn’t be Alexander… either that, or the mortician was wrong.

The final name on the list belonged to Zack Gamma, a person who seemed a little too “clean” for working at the Desperate Measures Agency. Harold knew it was unlikely that anyone could join the DMA with a completely clean record, but the work record wasn’t a matter of concern for him yet. Gamma’s job, like Octave’s, didn’t have a listed client, but Zack was going to a laundromat once every three days. After Harold determined the pattern, he was able to get eyes inside. Zack was speaking to one of the proprietors every day, and heading into a back room.

Harold tapped his pen against the last name on the list. Forcing his way into a laundromat would be more visible than he liked, but he didn’t have as many ideas about how to research the other two. Zack Gamma had just taken another job, but it’s possible that it was a dummy assignment meant to throw pursuers off the trail.

Harold smiled, and put the pen down. It was time to meet number twelve.