Category Archives: Helix

Episode 47: The Helix Double-Cross

Zack stared into Vox Cul-Dar’s eyes and wondered if they’d always looked so alien or if something about this horrible moment made them seem worse.

“It’s been a sequence of close calls for me, Gamma,” said Vox. “I don’t like close calls. I’m sure it’ll look funny in retrospect, though… you leaving that diner when I’d asked for help tracking down the fugitive before I knew it was you, for instance.”

Zack pushed Chip off of him and got onto a knee, but Vox bared the razor sharp serrations on his arms.

“Don’t leave, Zack. You’re telling me you don’t find that funny?”

“It’s an absolute riot,” said Zack. “Look, you’ve got me… stop talkin’ me to death and just finish it now.”

Vox smirked.

“You must have a low opinion of me if you think it’s that easy,” he said. “We worked together at times, Zack. And you were a good coworker, even if you couldn’t be trusted with the more serious business at hand.”

“Then don’t do it,” said Zack. “Don’t kill me. It’s the worst system ever, and I’m convinced that me getting a death sentence like that was a mistake. I’ve never done anything that would hurt the DMA, and you know it. Imagine how much more you could make if you let me go, and then we both figured out who’s setting me up. Come on, Vox. For old times.”

“And now your opinion of me is too high, I think,” said Vox. “It’s just business, after all. You’d do the same.”

“You know that’s a lie,” said Zack.

Hobbar gasped and jumped to the side, staring down the hallway beyond the door that Vox had entered through. Vox blinked at Hobbar in surprise and quickly looked down the hallway, following Hobbar’s eyes. A large, Pyrhian rock man was hurtling through the air, rocketing straight for him, with a confident Carmen Shift guiding it from the hallway’s end. faster than any human could possibly avoid.

Vox inhaled as time, from his perspective, slowed down. He took a calm step back, entering a practiced motion that came from the years of physical and mental training that practitioners of his art learned from a young age, a living poetry that granted speed and balance in the most urgent and panicked of scenarios.

The rock man zipped through the space where he’d been standing and slammed into the wall, right next to a terrified Hobbar, and Vox’s head tracked the motion. He started turning his head back toward Carmen to say something snide about her aim, but paused when he saw Zack, on his feet and holding his second Purcelian striker pistol, aiming it straight at Vox’s head.

“Now, Zack…” Vox started.

Zack fired the pistol. The arc of magnetically charged energy hit Vox, and the alien twitched, spasmed, and fell to the ground. He began slowly moving almost immediately, but Zack retrieved his second pistol before anything else could happen. Carmen ran through the door and looked at the smoking alien on the floor.

“Is he dead?”

“Stunned,” said Zack. “Didn’t have time to change the settings if I’d wanted to.”

“Did you want to?” asked Hobbar.

“No time to get into that now,” he said. “Carmen… thanks for the save there. Do you know the best way out?”

“There’s a service entrance that goes through a kitchen by a security check point back this way,” she said. “I didn’t find it my first time out, but… someone left a lot of obvious security doors open on his way in that made it easier to find. I’m guessing it was your bug-eyed friend there.”

“Great,” said Zack. “Lead the way.”

“You can’t just leave,” said Chip. “What am I supposed to tell Murk? He’ll kill me.”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” said Zack. “Go and hide. He’s easy to avoid when there’s not a city-controlling hacker helping him.”

Zack and Carmen ran down the hallway. Vox twitched on the floor and, after a beat, Hobbar followed them.

“Where are you going?” asked Chip.

“Hey, I don’t have to explain anything to Murk, mister,” said Hobbar. “And I don’t wanna be here when the bug guy wakes up. Besta luck, though.”

Hobbar ran. And, moments later, so did Chip, though in a different direction, down another hallway.

Less than a minute later, Vox gave himself a final shake and sat up. His temples and legs ached, but he stared down the hallway, the way he’d entered. And, he reasoned, the way that Zack had left.

“Not this time,” he said, rising to his feet and sprinting toward the service entrance.

***

Carmen and Zack ran through the kitchen that was mercifully empty thanks to the hour, though they periodically passed a lot of unconscious, or in some cases possibly dead, members of Murk’s security staff. Zack shuddered as they opened a door at the far end of the kitchen and saw a small security checkpoint that was noticeably vacant.

“Vox was sloppy getting in here,” said Zack. “Effective, but… sloppy.”

“No complaints here,” said Carmen. “Made my job easier. As soon as I saw that ghost thing talking to you in a cell, I knew I had to come back in here.”

“Well, that makes me feel like an idiot,” said Zack. “My rescue attempt didn’t exactly speed things up. Plus now Murk’s up and after me.”

“Actually, I heard a communicator activate on a guard just before I got to you,” she said. “Murk told everyone to stand down for now, and that they’d resume normal duties tomorrow. He sounded worried.”

“Good ol’ Igneous,” Zack said, running between the desks and opening the door that led outside. A narrow flight of stairs later, and Zack was in an alley, with the street visible a short distance away.

Hobbar speedily caught up with them at the top of the staircase, panting.

“You again,” said Carmen, clenching her fists.

“Look, lady, I’m just tryin’ to get outta there, same as you,” he said. “Think I’ll move to Veskid. ¬†Helix probably won’t be healthy for me for right now.”

“Want a lift?” asked Zack, briskly moving toward the street as the other two kept pace.

“Just to my place,” said Hobbar, pulling the van’s keys out of his vest pocket. “I’ve got a few things to pick up.”

Reaching the street, Zack pointed out the van, but Hobbar looked in another direction, spotting something else.

“Where are you going?” asked Zack. “I’m in a hurry! Vox will be after us any minute now.”

“I know!” he shouted. “Just get to the van! I’ll be there quickly.”

Zack winced at the delay, but Carmen pulled him in the direction of Igneous’ vehicle. Zack opened the back doors and stepped in, but Carmen paused.

“Why is there a hot tub in the van?”

“It’s more like a cold tub, actually,” he said. He looked in the tub and saw the faint outline of Igneous beneath the piles and piles of ice.

“And it’s got Igneous in it.”

“Igneous?” asked Carmen.

“Friend from work,” said Zack. “Trustable, though.”

Carmen nodded. Hobbar returned, grinning.

“What were you doing?” asked Zack, shutting the van’s back door after Hobbar stepped in.

“Returning something,” he said. “I’ll tell you soon.”

Hobbar hopped into the driver’s seat of the van, activated it, and sped away just as Vox emerged from the alley. He saw the van leave, noted the driver, and scowled.

He sprinted down the street, entering his flying car quickly. He activated it as Rendelac took notice of him, and was in the air before the computer could speak.

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” it said.

“Not now, Rendelac!” Vox shouted. “Zack Gamma is getting away in that van. We can catch him, though… he has a head start, but this car can fly! There’s no evading us now.”

“Greater wisdom may be yours if-”

“Quiet!” said Vox.

“Your car has been-”

Vox muted Rendelac’s speaker systems and continued driving through the air, pushing away the guilt he felt at silencing his digital guide. He could just see the taillights of the van ahead of him, and the spirals of the roads would give him the edge.

A red warning light flashed on his status panel as his car began slowing, seemingly of its own volition.

“What?” asked Vox. “What’s happening…”

Rendelac’s eye shifted in color, indicating that the computer had something to say if Vox cared to hear it. Vox reactivated the speaker system.

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “The boy who tampered with your vehicle after misleading you earlier returned to the car.”

“Did he steal something else?”

“No,” said Rendelac. “In fact, he returned the identification node that he stole.”

“That shouldn’t alter anything about how the car drives,” said Vox.

Red flashing lights appeared in the sky behind Vox. A message on the vehicle’s status screen appeared, indicating that his vehicle had been remotely apprehended by Helix law enforcement on suspicion of using a stolen identification node by order of an Officer Tacara.

“We registered it as stolen,” said Rendelac. “We have committed no crime, but the child may have caused us a significant delay in our pursuit as flagged identification nodes are of great interest to the law enforcement agencies across Veskid.”

Vox’s eye twitched as he watched the lights of the van disappear in the darkness ahead. With a gentle bump, his car landed on a remotely selected section of pavement while the vehicle behind him landed as well. As Vox saw the officer stepping out of the car in his rear view mirror, he gripped the controls of his own vehicle.

Zack might, in fact, prove difficult to apprehend after all.

To Be Continued…

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Episode 46: Service Entrance

Zack rounded the corner with Hobbar close behind. Chip trailed sluggishly, not used to keeping up with as much activity as the other two.

“We’ve not seen anyone in minutes,” Chip panted. “There’s no one after us! Let’s… let’s take a break here.”

“Not a chance,” said Zack, nearing the next door in the hallway. “Based on the kinds of rooms we’re seeing, this is a standard service floor. Now, the architecture here’s the sort that might send a city planner to the funny farm, but layouts like this tend to have extra exits for service staff, even if we’ll have to climb stairs to find them. Chefs, janitors, maintenance crew, and all the people who’ve got the jobs that keep things running smoothly. And while Murk’s definitely repurposed this building, the whole place is too clean. There’s another way in down here, and we’re getting close to it.”

Zack reached for the door, but it opened before he touched it, pulled inward by someone on the other side. Vox Cul-Dar, looking as if he’d strangled so many guards that his heart simply wasn’t in it anymore, appeared behind the door and froze at the sight of Zack Gamma.

“You?” said Vox.

“Vox!” said Zack.

“Vox?” said Hobbar.

“You!” shouted Vox, seeing Hobbar. The Crinlian took a step back, as Vox’s normally highly ordered mind spun into overdrive. When he’d first come to Murk’s headquarters, his priority had been tracking down a lead on the Phantom Matador. But after a slow and, frankly, aggravating trek through the service entrance’s security team, seeing the bounty he wanted to catch the most and the child he wanted vengeance on the most at the same time caused his mind to experience something not unlike whiplash.

He jumped at Zack, but had wasted just enough time in the shock to see the investigator draw and aim one of his Purcellian striker pistols. Vox slowed and entered a defensive stance, but Chip ran, shoulder first, into Zack, sending them both onto the ground. The gun that Zack had been carrying launched itself from his hands and slid across the floor, coming to a rest at Vox’s feet. Vox looked at the weapon, then at the man who was struggling to keep Zack pinned to the floor.

“Thank you for the assistance,” said Vox. “I don’t plan on sharing the bounty, though.”

“Don’t turn him in to the DMA,” said Chip. “Turn him in to Murk.”

“Now why would I do that?” asked Vox. Hobbar managed to inch away for a moment before Vox spotted him, glared, and willed the Crinlian to halt.

“Murk’s favors are valuable,” said Chip. “Think of what having him as an ally might bring. He’s eager to see Zack dead at his hands rather than someone else’s.”

“I doubt that Murk’s favor would be as valuable as what I’ll collect with my original plan,” said Vox. “I also don’t know why Zack is wanted by the DMA. If a higher-up has wrath equal to Murk’s but the resources of the entire agency, then I think I know who I’m working for. Now… get off my quarry.”

Zack looked up into the eyes of Vox Cul-Dar. He wasn’t in a position to run, fight, or bargain. It was the end of the line.

***

Much earlier, on another world…

Sister Barris waved Azar into the small room, and motioned for him to sit at the table. Azar sat, feeling wary and trapped. The Order of Fierce Mercy had safehouses, an assumption built from the knowledge that their clients might not be able to find legal counsel because their position was too dangerous for their location to be known to the public. Azar had grudgingly agreed to the process but had resented it.

“It’s not right,” he said. “I’m supposed to be getting a new home and retiring comfortably, not on the run in back alleys and secret buildings.”

“I know,” said Sister Barris. “It’s just until the trial, though. Once you’re passed the trial, and once the verdict comes down in your favor, this will all be over.”

“They’re looking for me,” said Azar. “I can feel it.”

“We all can,” said Barris. “They’re afraid that they’ll be losing it all. And while they don’t know where you are yet, they’re looking. That’s why we’re here.”

“Do you think we can trust anyone else in this situation?”

“Yes,” said Barris. “It may be true that everyone in this line of work has a history… just as it’s true that everyone has a history… but I think he’s the best bet you’ve got. Bristlecorp may find our safehouses, but they’ll never find the ones he’s set up.”

The door on the opposite side of the room swung open, and the agency representative entered, tossing a clipboard onto the table before sitting across from Azar. The man looked haggard, spindly, and confident, even if overworked. It was the look of a man who did exhausting work, but made sure it was done right. Azar recognized the look from his own mirror. The man doffed his hat and tossed it into the chair next to the one he’d selected for himself.

“Azar?” said the man. “Good to meet you. I’m Gamma, Zachary Gamma. Sister Barris tells me that you’ve hit some desperate times, and that’s exactly when our company can step in to help people like you.”

“Thank you,” said Azar. “I’m still not sure what you can do that isn’t already being done, though.”

“Let me worry about that,” said Zack. “I’ll be honest, I’ve never had a client in quite your position… I don’t think anyone in history’s been in exactly what you’re experiencing… but my job’s going to be all about finding exactly what it’ll take to see you get to your trial date in one piece. Nothing’s gonna take you out of the picture while I’m around, and I expect to be around for a long, long time.”

Episode 45: Heat Of The Moment

Zack peered around the corner and watched Murk’s two stone men rush at Igneous, and watched Igneous grab the arm of the closest one, twisting its arm and spinning it about to act as a human shield, an act that prevented the second from tackling her. Zack winced and pulled his head back around the corner. Chip and Hobbar stood right behind him, looking worried. Zack wasn’t sure why, but seeing the hacker unsettled made him happy.

“Do you think she’ll be able to handle them?”

“If none of the humans or Murk join the fight, absolutely,” said Zack. “They’ve got a numbers advantage, but she’s got the kind of experience that’d put a drill sergeant’s boot camp out of business for five years if it could be bottled and sold to new recruits. Murk and company’ll be coming around this corner any moment now. Does this other hallway have any exits?”

“I don’t know,” said Chip.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I really don’t know! I was here once, and I went straight from those elevators to the cells and back.”

“We need to move, and now,” said Hobbar, looking around the corner. “I don’t think we’ll be able to get those guys into the cells like we did with the guy downstairs.”

“Right,” said Zack. “This way, Chip. If I’m lucky, you’ll make it out of here in one piece.”

***

Igneous watched the human guards rushing around the corner, and hoped that Zack would be able to handle everything coming his way. She grabbed the fist of one of her assailants to block his strike, and spun him into the other, causing the two to crash into the wall. She noticed that Jen was crawling away from the combat, toward the elevator behind Murk. Igneous was already starting to breathe heavily, and the orange and red glow from behind her eyes and the cracks in her skin increased along with her breathing. These two had clearly never practiced combat as a discipline, and lacked the field experience that might make up for it, but if they were smart about it they might be able to outlast her. The two regained their feet, faster than Igneous had hoped for, but unsteadily enough that she felt she still had a chance.

“I don’t have to handle this myself, do I?” asked Murk, flowing closer to the combat, growing slimmer and taller as he neared. “With what I pay the two of you, I’d hope that you could incapacitate a single mercenary without requiring my assistance.”

“Try it,” said Igneous, keeping an eye on the two rock men as they tried to circle her. “These two’ve at least picked up a few brawling techniques from the back alleys, but from what I remember you don’t even have that.”

“My people don’t need to learn to fight,” said Murk. “To touch us is to feel our wrath, and to engage us is to take the first step toward being enveloped.”

“Then all those combat classes I took when I was your age must not have given me any advantages over the years,” said Igneous. “Clearly, I don’t know what I’m doing out here.”

One of the rock men lunged, and Igneous grabbed it, using her attacker’s momentum and her own raw strength to launch the him into the opponent on her other side. The two hit the ground and looked up in time to see the cloudy expression intensify on Murk’s face.

“Fine, then,” said Murk. “I’ll drown you, and errode you away, and leave whatever might remain as a warning to future DMA members who think they can charge into my home or operate in Helix without my say so.”

***

Fletch lifted the entry hatch of the elevator and dropped into its cab. A magnetic key unscrewed the maintenance panel and allowed her to disable the elevator’s chime with the pull of a single wire. A button push later and the door silently slid open.

She witnessed Murk, the undisputed ruler of Helix’s criminal underworld, forming into a wall of purple and blue liquid, a liquid that almost prevented her from seeing Igneous on the other side. The wall rushed and rolled at Igneous like a wave, one designed to flow upon and easily entrap anything it encountered.

Fletch calculated the value of Igneous to her endeavors and relative use to DMA projects that involved her, and the worth of Murk. She reached for a pistol at her tech suit’s belt, one loaded with one of the two doses of Teles. She stopped reaching for it when the wall touched Igneous, sizzled, and recoiled.

Murk reformed into a more familiar version of himself, and came as close as he could to falling onto his back in surprise.

“How are you that hot?” he asked. “How… how are you alive? You should have either died or moved on to your metamorphosis by now!”

“Funny thing about all that combat studying I did,” said Igneous. “It taught me a few things about balance. Physical, emotional, mental… you’re right that I’m well overdue for your average Pyrhian, but I’ve got more than enough fight in me to burn you away. Or evaporate you. Whatever it is you do.”

Murk washed backward, toward the elevator.

“Now, you keep your hands off me.”

“Why?” asked Igneous. “I thought to touch you was to feel your wrath. Will your wrath not keep you cool? Hey, at least your guards here don’t seem to mind the heat. I should probably thank them, really, for the warm up before you entered the ring. What say you call them off, and the guards chasing Gamma, and I won’t finish the job.”

Murk took a moment and nodded to the two guards. They regained their feet slowly. Igneous looked beyond Murk and saw Jen sitting in front of one elevator and Fletch of all people stepping out of another.

“Sounds like you found your friend,” said Fletch. “Glad to hear that I came to the right building. When I saw the wind prophet, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to piece together the location properly.”

“I was worried that’d happen,” said Igneous.

“Don’t be too sad,” said Fletch. “You may still get your Teles if I find Gamma.”

Murk stared at the new intruder, not sure what was happening. Fletch glared at him when she noticed.

“I think my stony friend just told you to call your guards off from pursuing Zack Gamma. Get on that.”

Episode 44: Rock In A Hard Place

“Good to see you, Murk,” said Igneous, maintaining her pin on the terrified Jen. “How’ve you been since Ravelar?”

“Marvelous,” said Murk. “Today’s quite the reunion. I take it you’re here to help Gamma as you did back then?”

“He’s not with the Agency anymore,” said Igneous. “There’s a nice bounty on his head. And he’s here in your facility. If I suspected it before, I’d say the wind prophet confirmed it.”

Igneous carefully shifted her weight and Jen gasped. It was a technique that came from a lot of practice, and too much time associating with humans. The right amount of weight on the right part of the abdomen, and a human couldn’t breathe enough to talk most of the time. The woman with the cabbie hat was an unfortunate witness. Even if Jen managed to catch her breath enough to speak, the threat would be clear; much more pressure would cause permanent damage, if not a painful death.

“That mad child is always informative when he can be coaxed to talking.”

“Child?” asked igneous. “He looked old for one of his sort. Aren’t most of the prophets older than you?”

“I grew up,” said Murk. “The prophets are useful, but some people cling to their current stage of life so much longer than they should… ignoring the bright future they have ahead of themselves.”

Igneous kept a blank expression at that comment, but the glow from within the cracks in her hide brightened. Murk’s face twisted into a grin, though his two rock soldiers looked uncofortable.

“What’s Gamma worth to you?” asked Igneous. “The bounty I’m after is a large one. Very large.”

“I’m not planning on paying the DMA’s prices to you for the fun of killing off Zack, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Murk. “Even for only a quarter of those prices, imagine if any other DMA agents were nearby. It’d set a horrible precedent if they got here after you.”

Igneous’ mind raced. She knew this conversation wouldn’t last much longer before either Zack did something stupid like running around the corner, or before Murk’s patience wore out. The witness she was pinning would complicate issues as well.

“Consider this, then,” said Igneous. “I was with Gamma already, trying to coax him out of Helix and back to Veskid City, humoring his plans without revealing mine. If other bounty hunters are on their way, you may have a lot of trouble in the near future if Zack is still here. Let me take him off your hands, and you’ll avoid that trouble.”

“How generous of you, offering to receive a giant bounty payment like that,” said Murk. “It would leave me without my chance for vengeance, though. If I smother him myself, the problem of bounty hunters still goes away.”

“Why does vengeance matter that much to you?” asked Igneous. “Gamma says he doesn’t remember you at all. And I can attest to the fact that his memory seems… faulty.”

“Even if that’s the case, I’m excited to see him dead,” said Murk. “I don’t care if he can’t remember how everything unfolded on Ravelar. Besides, I’m not convinced that he’s not lying. He’d say or do anything to survive, one of the more pitiable traits in humans.”

Igneous slowly picked herself up from the ground, letting Jen breathe. She hoped that everything she’d said matched closely enough to what Jen had seen.

“So, you won’t match the DMA’s bounty for Zack, and you won’t let me take him to help you avoid a future problem. We’re at an impasse.”

“Not for long,” said Murk. He gestured to the two rock men. “You two, don’t let her interfere. The rest of you, to the cells.”

Episode 43: Converging

Zack jumped out of the cell and began storming down the hallway toward the stairs, moving passed the stunned Igneous and Hobbar. Chip grinned as Zack neared.

“Not the racer? Sorry about th-”

Zack punched Chip and grabbed the hacker’s shirt. It didn’t wipe the smile away, but Zack could see the change in Chip’s eyes. Chip knew he’d gone one comment too far.

“Where is she?”

“I honestly don’t know,” he said. “I’d been hoping that I could talk you into the Pyrhian prophet’s cell, but all the others are genuinely unlocked. Maybe Murk released her again already, since I didn’t have time to give context to the instructions to have her kidnapped.”

“Where else might they try to hold her?”

“I really don’t know,” said Chip.

Zack wasn’t sure how far he could trust his instincts on the hacker, but he felt that Chip was being honest enough. He let go of Chip’s shirt.

“I don’t want a word from you until we’re out of here, unless it’s to talk down more guards,” said Zack. “If I get out of Helix in one piece, I might not tell Murk how helpful you’ve been. If you do anything else to mess with me, and I mean anything, you won’t make it back to that dusty penthouse of yours.”

Rapid footsteps echoed from the top of the stairs. Chip looked from Zack’s eyes to the staircase and back. Zack either didn’t notice the noise or didn’t care.

“Are we clear?” asked Zack.

“Very,” said Chip.

Zack pushed the hacker in the direction of the steps.

“Now get us out of here.”

“Should we do anything about the… prisoner in there?” asked Hobbar. “He’s… he doesn’t look well.”

Hobbar looked at the Pyrhian in the cell. He was curled into a tense crouch on the cell’s floor.

“I don’t think he’s breathing,” said Hobbar.

“He doesn’t need to breathe,” said Igneous.

Two humans raced into the hall, a man in a suit and a woman in a soft cap and more casual garb. The two paused when they saw the people already in the hall.

“Chip,” said the woman.

“Jen,” said Chip. “Good to see you.”

Rillem looked passed the group and saw the unlocked door. He raced toward the door, prompting Zack to tense, but Chip held up a hand. The man looked into the cell and groaned.

“He got out.”

“What?” said Hobbar. The Crinlian looked passed the man back into the cell and saw that the Pyrhian air man was, in fact, missing.

“How did he get out?” asked Zack.

“He’d only need a crack. Tell me that you didn’t open the door because you thought the racer was going to be here? I hate to say it, Chip, but we’ve lost Carmen Shift. She got out.”

Chip looked at Zack carefully. Zack’s mind raced.

“That’s it exactly,” said Zack. “It was the only locked cell, so we… looked there.”

“Didn’t you install the special lock, Chip?” asked Rillem. “You should’ve known what cell this was.”

“Who are you?” asked Jen, looking at Zack.

“Me?”

“I know you,” said Jen, taking a step back toward the stairs. A look of realization crossed her face before she turned to race up the stairs. Zack ran after her. Igneous was faster.

Igneous pushed past Zack and made it to the staircase as Jen ran up. Igneous couldn’t catch up on the stairs, designed for smaller human feet as they were. Jen ran through the door to the hall, gaining more ground as Igneous slowed to squeeze through the door frame. Jen rounded the corner before the elevators just as Igneous fully emerged into the hallway.

Igneous ran through the open space, moving much faster now and gaining ground. She turned the corner, leaving an indentation in the floor as her stony feet propelled her in a different direction, and launched toward Jen as she neared the elevators.

Igneous tackled the human just before reaching the elevator controls, and pinned her to the floor.

Both of the elevators chimed, and the doors slid apart. One elevator contained two Pyrhian rock men. The other held four humans and Murk. The Pyrhian water man flowed out of the elevator door, and observed Igneous and Jen carefully.

“Hello, Igneous,” said Murk. “it’s been a while.”

Episode 42: A Truth Set Free

Zack watched the door to the cell open and eagerly jumped inside. The room appeared to be empty, save for a chair and a device hanging from the ceiling. The device was shaped like a helmet or a light fixture, and featured a number of gently glowing lights fixed into its chrome exterior. The dome-shaped contraption glowed from beneath, and was suspended by a reinforced cable. Zack studied the room for a moment before wilting.

“She’s not here,” he said. “It’s empty.”

“No it’s not,” muttered Chip from the hallway. He typed another command into the cell’s control panel. Igneous caught the phrase and stopped peering into the room, noticing Chip’s continued work.

“Stop!” she shouted, but not before Chip finalized the command. The glow of the device in the cell faded as Zack looked over his shoulder, back to the hallway. Igneous grabbed Chip and pushed him against the wall while Hobbar watched nervously.

“What’s the problem?” asked Zack.

“He just did something to the control panel,” said Igneous.

“What’re you trying to pull?” asked Zack.

“Nothing,” said Chip. “You wanted the cell opened and accessible, and I’ve done everything I can to introduce you to the prisoner.”

“What prisoner?” asked Zack.

“That prisoner,” said Hobbar, looking into the cell beyond Zack. Zack turned around, looked back at the chair, and jumped back in surprise.

The faint outline of a figure was forming beneath the deactivated dome, a human-like shape that was gradually gaining solidity and form. The form it gained was white, like a gentle mist or cloud or steam that was gradually thickening before their eyes. In a definite moment of clarity, the mist shaped like a man became a person, transparent but definitive, garbed in a white robe that seemed to flow as a cloud. He stared at Zack in horror, his eyes growing wider with every moment. A tense second passed while the two looked at each other.

“Who…?” was all Zack could manage before the room errupted with a violent maelstrom of wind as air began circling and spinning in the chamber. The figure pointed at Zack and began to lift out of its seat as Zack felt the ground drop away from him as air pressure provided lift while making it hard to catch his breath.

The entity neared Zack, pointing, a mad look in its eyes, like a hawk staring at and through everything in its territory.

“How does your friend breathe?! Astride the rocks she moves, but how does she breathe?! Why is she not crushed on her path?!”

“It’s talking now!” shouted the chef, trying desperately to hold down the food. Already customers were rising from their tables outside the door, trying to look in through the circular windows, their attention drawn by the clatter of pots and pans being whipped about the kitchen by the maelstrom of rushing wind.

“It’s talking!” shouted the restaurant manager, holding the phone to his ear.

“Your secret will be discovered!” shouted the figure. “Prepare it before the ingredients are found, or they will know before the appointed time!”

“What secret?!” shouted one of the officers in the lobby of the police station. Officer Tacara activated the radio in her gauntlet as the others tried to keep all the papers in the room from scattering.

“Looks like a Pyrhian, an air person!” she shouted into her wrist. “It just appeared, no flow-through!”

“You will perform your duty, but you will not apprehend the one you seek! Justice will be done despite this mistake, but the justice will not end the chase!”

“Keep talking,” said Murk, holding the electronic seashell aloft. He ignored the flying papers in his sleeping chambers, knowing that recording the words would be the important thing. Something had happened in the holding cells, and someone would come along to wake him soon. Making sure it didn’t escape was the priority, but any word might be important.

“Your prey was released to be hunted, but another hunter found him before the vines could feast! Who is the hunter’s helper? What does she want? It is too late for those answers to aid you!”

Vox Cul-Dar had seen Pyrhian Air People before, but never one like this. He’d managed to reach the rear entrance of Murk’s facility, and had the one competant guard in the building in a headlock. As what seemed to be a living tornado popped into existence before them, Vox (and the guard, really) forgot their struggle as the ghostly image began shouting more and more words that meant nothing. Vox remembered his place and continued putting the pressure on the guard, releasing just as the guard lost consciousness but before it became fatal.

“Stop shouting, or you’ll blow my cover!” shouted Vox, letting the guard drop to the floor. The Pyrhian’s gaze seemed to focus more clearly on Vox.

“The one you seek is even now close at hand! Only great cunning and great skill will let you find your way!”

Fletch nodded, trusting that the message was a good omen. Whatever this Pyrhian… if it was a Pyrhian… was doing, it didn’t appear to be a threat. She lowered Chernoblast, and contented herself to keep listening.

“Carry your home with you no longer! You will be reunited with glory soon enough! Your prey wears many masks, but a mask does not need to be worn, nor a costume need to be donned, nor a breeze need a rock to sweep!”

Chip watched in smug satisfaction, seeing Zack, Igneous and Hobbar staring at the being in the cell. He looked down the hallway and saw another looking at him, adding its own rush of wind to what the others were experiencing. They didn’t even notice. Chip wondered how many others were conjuring themselves across Helix, and who each message was for.

“You shackle yourself, but your intuition and hope are correct. Void Pilgrim yet flies!”

“That’s what I told ’em!” shouted the ragged fellow in the street. “Void Pilgrim flies, and we’ve got tubes snakin’ their way through town! There’s a shadow-ruler who pulls the strings of Helix with the tools of the ancients!”

“Your path is obscured, but assistance may yet be found for you! Help is available if you seek it! And you…”

Carmen watched the terrifying creature seem to reach forward and grab… something. The image of a face formed in the hands of the specter. Even before the face fully formed, Carmen recognized the out-of-style hat on its head.

“Zack?!”

“What do you want?!” it shouted at Zack.

“To… to get out of here alive! To find Carmen, and to get out! To not be on the run! Put me down!”

The image stared at Zack, who stared back up at it, still finding it hard to breathe.

“You’ve been told when you’ll die, but not how long. Or how long you have to live, but not when you die. You’ll need to make hard choices to survive, but will you have the time for it all?”

The image of Zack dropped to the ground as many watched, and the picture began to spread, briefly filling in a floor and wall made of air and mist before the image suddenly collapsed.

Murk rose out of his tank at the sight of Zack Gamma in his cells.

Vox paused, rethinking what the grisly image meant.

Carmen looked from where the figure had been, to the open window that would let her escape if she wished.

Officer Tacara shut off her radio. The image, naturally, disappeared just after the psi-crimes unit had said they were on their way.

Fletch frowned. She had her reticle compare what was shown of the architecture of the room to known building structures in Helix. The odds of a complete match with such a tiny amount of information (from an interior shot, no less) would ordinarily not be worth considering at all, but the ever-curving nature of helix’s infrastructure might give her just the information she needed.

Zack stood, and backed away from the air-figure, who appeared to be weeping on the floor.

“I’ve never seen a Pyrhian do that before,” he said.

“It’s not common,” said Igneous.

“We should go, Carmen’s not here.” said Zack. “I hope nobody heard that.”

Episode 41: Hacker’s Recollection

Carmen had half-expected to hear klaxon alarms and the thundering footsteps of guards around every corner, but the facility apparently lacked the large staff or intricate security systems that media had led her to expect. At one point, two frantic looking humans in suits ran down a hallway while she hid behind a disused aquarium in an open supply room, but hadn’t otherwise seen any signs of people looking for her.

She wasn’t sure what she’d missed by choosing not to follow the Phantom Matador’s directions, but the path she’d taken had been a long one through a mostly linear set of halls. She’d considered hiding in each and every room she came to to make sure that the coast was clear every few feet, but dismissed the idea as ridiculous and a waste of time. Just when she was beginning to feel that she was going in a circle, she turned a corner and saw two elevators set into the wall. She ran to them and pushed the Up button before beginning the tiresome process of waiting. Finally she heard the elevator chime and saw its doors glide open.

A rapid set of footfalls echoed from around the corner and she winced, worried that the sound of the elevator had attracted attention. She jumped into the elevator and pushed the button to close the door.

Moments later, a second chime was heard in the hallway as the second elevator’s doors opened. Zack, Chip and Hobbar quickly stepped out of the tiny elevator, giving Igneous the space needed to slowly extract herself from the human-sized doors. Two people in suits ran around the corner and stared in surprise at the four of them.

“Hey!” shouted one of the two men. Zack tensed and reached for his pistol.

“They’re with me!” shouted Chip, pushing his way ahead of Zack.

The two men paused, unsure.

“Who are you?” asked one.

“I’m Chip,” he said. “Chip Creep.”

The two stared.

“I work with Murk. I’m an information specialist. These three are with me.”

“I think I’ve heard him mention a Chip before,” said one.

“If you have questions, just go and check the Underjungle Manifest. I’m it’s curator.”

“Oh! The Ravelar thing,” said the second. “Yeah, I know this guy. He does work for us.”

“With you,” said Chip. “Not for you.”

“Sure,” the second man. “Sorry, we heard the elevator and thought-”

“Never mind,” said Chip. “No problem. Carry on.”

Chip turned and walked toward the near end of the hall. Hobbar and Igneous quickly did likewise, followed by Zack. They soon turned the corner and Zack breathed a sigh of relief.

“A little slow on the uptake there,” said Chip.

“Sorry,” said Zack. “Felt like things were going to go south.”

“Yeah, and I would’ve either died in the crossfire, or you would’ve attracted so much attention that we’d have a firefight.”

“Thanks for not trying to pull a fast one there.”

“It wouldn’t have been practical,” said Chip, reaching a door that opened onto a flight of stairs. “Though if they actually check the Underjungle Manifest, they’ll think something’s up since there isn’t a Manifest for that project. Not one I know about. I think she’ll be down here.”

The three shorter figures entered first, allowing Igneous the chance to squeeze through the narrow door. She was glad to see that the passage quickly expanded on its way down.

“I hate it down here,” said Hobbar. “The deeper you go in a building, the fewer exits you’ll get. And I’ve been looking. There aren’t any. The farther we go here, the harder it’ll be to get out if something goes wrong.”

“What a coincidence that that’s where the cells were put,” said Chip, leading the way down. “They really lucked out on that. Truly, Murk’s money was well spent on whatever architect worked that out.”

“Look, don’t start with me,” said Hobbar. “I get jittery if there’s not a good way out.”

“We won’t have to be here long,” said Igneous. “Just long enough to get the racer since Zack’s already got everything else he needs.”

The staircase opened into a long hallway. Reinforced doors ran along one side, with a control panel for each door opposite them. Zack’s eyes shot down the hall until he saw the control panel with a different readout.

“That one,” he said. “She’s there.”

“How do you know?” asked Hobbar.

“Green readouts on the others that say they’re unlocked,” said Zack, running down the hall. “It’s the only one with a red screen. It’s locked.”

The others followed as Zack ran to the control panel. He looked at it, perplexed.

“I’ve never seen something like this before,” he said. “It’s not a standard model. Not like the others.”

“It’s custom,” said Chip. “Designed to dampen psychic capabilities as well as keep the door locked.”

“You’re sure?” asked Zack.

“Like I said, I’ve been down here exactly once,” said Chip. “I can get it open without a password.”

Zack stepped back and allowed Chip to begin working at the terminal. Chip smiled to himself. He certainly remembered adding the custom design to this particular terminal. He also remembered that Carmen wasn’t in this cell. He couldn’t wait for Zack to meet the person who was.

Episode 39: The Vendril Safe

Chip entered Murk’s office, keeping his eye out for anything dangerous or useful. The room was sparsely furnished but pleasantly decorated. The wood paneling of the walls was gently lit by a small glowing dome on the ceiling, while two tables on opposite sides of the room held lamps that enhanced the dim effect to the point that it was almost bearable. A few paintings on the walls showed images of ocean life and vast wetlands on alien worlds, with a picture of a nebula on the wall behind the desk.

Zack pushed his way in after, keeping his eyes on Chip. Hobbar and Igneous followed, with Igneous carefully locking the door behind her. Zack walked to the desk and began a practiced sweep of the area.

“You’d think someone as successful as Murk could afford a few chairs,” said Hobbar.

“Pyrhians at his stage of life don’t really need to sit,” said Igneous. “They can fashion themselves into whatever form is easiest. Lying down, sitting, and standing amount to about the same effort for water people.”

“And he likes other people to be uncomfortable,” said Chip. “If you’re meeting him in his office, he wants you standing.”

“Nothing,” said Zack. “There’s nothing here. Nothing I can use, anyway. The entire desk is… it’s police-raid safe. Clean as a weatherman’s car. Only notes on legitimate business, personal finance… I pegged Murk as sloppier than this.”

“Oh, he’s sloppy,” said Chip. “He’s just careful about it. Check behind Vendril Eight Four Eight.”

“Behind what?” asked Hobbar.

“The picture,” said Igneous. “One of the first regions of space that Pyrhians colonized.”

Zack grabbed the painting and moved his hands across its frame until he found a latch. He pulled it, and the painting swung out on hinges like a door revealing a safe with a small control panel and four spaces for numbers.

“A secret safe,” he said.

“Murk was pretty open about it, actually,” said Chip. “I think he felt like he’d finally made it when he could afford that thing. He showed it to me the first time I met with him here. I didn’t even have anything he needed to put there. I’ve heard other people say that he shows it off pretty regularly. And the good news is that Murk is mostly transparent. The combination is Three Five Five Eight.”

Zack reached out to enter the code.

“Wait,” said Hobbar. “That’s an Eversteel safe. Eversteel safes can have false codes installed that can activate alarms.”

Zack glared at Chip, who smiled genially.

“They’ll also lock people out for an hour if there are too many failed attempts to open the safe too quickly. …which can also, at the owner’s option, set off alarms.”

“So brute forcing my way through the possible combinations isn’t an option,” said Zack.

“You really think we’d have that kind of time?” asked Igneous.

“Probably not,” said Zack. “Even with only three numbers it could take over an hour.”

Zack carefully looked over the control panel. He didn’t have the tools needed to check for fingerprints properly, but Pyrhians didn’t have fingerprints. Murk had a lot of pseudo-water that could be formed into fingers if needed, and while he might not need fingers to pick things up he still used them for interacting with human-made controls. Three of the buttons definitely had wear on them, as if they’d been polished from extra use.

“I think I can tell which buttons he’s used the most,” said Zack.

“Nice job,” said Chip. “But do you really think you can know what order they’re in?”

“Igneous, does the Pyrhian alphabet have an equivalent to the letter V?” asked Zack. “Is it the third letter by any chance?”

“Yes,” said Igneous. “To both.”

Zack entered a three as the first number, followed by an eight, a four, and another eight. Igneous groaned and Hobbar looked confused.

“What?” said Hobbar.

“Ordinarily I wouldn’t try something so obvious, but it fits the used numbers. Vendril Eight Four Eight. Unless you have any better ideas?”

“It’s a step up from using birthdays, at least,” said Igneous.

Zack grabbed the safe’s handle and pulled. The lights around the numbers turned a reassuring shade of green, and a moment later the safe’s door swung open. He breathed a sigh of relief.

“Not as confident as you seem?” asked Chip.

“I was worried that code for access would’ve been set to also be a code that sets off an alarm,” said Zack.

“I don’t think the safes are made to let users do that,” said Hobbar.

“That’s a mistake, then,” said Zack as he peered into the safe. “If I buy a safe, I always want to know when someone opens it, even if it’s me.”

The safe contained a number of files and papers near the front, and Zack could even see some bricks of paper money near the back. A box on top of a pile of folders caught his attention, and he quickly opened it. He smiled, and removed the box from the safe. He set it on the table and removed his Identification Card and his Purcellian Striker Pistols from within.

“One down,” he said. “Three to go.”

Episode 38: Plan Of Attack

Chip Creep walked out of the shadows of the train tunnel. The guard on duty continued playing some sort of game on his handheld computer, not noticing the hacker’s approach at first. When Chip began an awkward attempt to rise out of the tunnel and onto the platform proper, he almost dropped the phone in surprise but held onto it long enough to put it away and help Chip up.

“Chip? What are you doing?”

“Walking. Thanks. I need to see Murk.”

“Where’s the train? Don’t you usually use a little train? The ‘Creeper Car’ or something?”

“Creep Car. I’m having some train trouble. Listen, I’ve got to talk to Murk, Zack Gamma’s escaped.”

“Escaped? How?”

“Help from the outside. We don’t have long, I really need to speak to Murk about this.”

“Right,” said the guard. He returned to the door and entered a short code on the door’s keypad. The door clicked, and he opened it. He had to quickly sidestep Chip as the hacker tried to move into the door.

“Hey!” said the guard. “You know I’ve gotta clear you first.”

“We don’t have time to wait for that,” said Chip.

A raucous thundering of footsteps came from the other tunnel. The guard stopped and turned to the train tracks, just in time to see a giant Pyrhian rock woman leaping at him, with eyes like brilliant embers. Chip and the guard both screamed as Igneous grabbed the guard and slammed him to the ground. Chip looked away, expecting a sickening sight, but moments later her gravelly voice rumbled to life without the unpleasant noises that he’d anticipated.

“All clear,” she said. Zack entered from Chip’s side of the tunnel, lowering the pistol he’d had trained on Chip during the execution of the plan, the very pistol that he’d stolen from Chip’s apartment. Hobbar entered from Igneous’ side of the tunnel, keeping his sharp eyes on everything surrounding them. Hobbar looked at the guard and breathed a sigh of relief that the guard was breathing, though he doubted the scorch marks on the suit would come out any time soon now that Igneous’ scalding hands had left their mark.

“Nice work, Chip,” said Zack. “He totally bought it and gave Igneous the opening she needed.”

“It wasn’t hard to mess up,” said Chip. “If the plan went wrong, he would’ve let me in and I would’ve been safe from you and I could’ve just told Murk what I know. No matter how this plays out, I’ll help somebody.”

“Right,” said Zack.

“Too bad it’s looking like it’ll be you,” said Chip.

“Thanks,” said Zack.

“Why only one guard?” asked Hobbar. “This is an obvious security problem.”

“I’m the only one in Helix with access to these tunnels,” said Chip. “If an assassin gets in this way, it’s because I helped. And, hey, look how it’s playing out.”

“Your honesty’s refreshing,” said Igneous. “What’ll we be dealing with once we get inside?”

“Murk’s office is near this door. I’ve got no idea what kind of schedule he keeps, but if he’s around there should be guards nearby. I’ve heard he’s no pushover in a fight by himself, though.”

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” said Igneous.

“You said that the holding cells are deeper down,” said Zack. “You sure that they’ll only have light security?”

“No,” said Chip. “I’ve seen them once, and didn’t really want to be there. I felt closed in. Seemed light at the time, only one guard. I’ve got no idea how it’ll look now, though, it’s been a couple years.”

“We’ll have to play that part by ear, then,” said Zack. “Getting Carmen out’s the priority, but it sounds like I’ll have a chance to grab my gear before then, assuming Murk’s still got it in his office. The office is also where we’ll have the best shot at finding the kind of evidence that Murk doesn’t want to be publicized, and that might give us some breathing room if we can get out alive with it. Let’s be quick and quiet about this. No surprises, got it everyone?”

He looked pointedly at Chip.

“Got it,” said Chip.

“Right,” said Hobbar.

“Good,” said Igneous. “The longer we can go without them suspecting anything, the easier this’ll be. Which means there’s probably a dozen or so people just beyond the door. Let’s see how our luck holds out.”

Zack pushed the door open, finishing the job that the guard stopped when Chip tried to slip in. The wood paneling and comfortable lighting beyond revealed a hallway bereft of armed guards.

“So far so good, Igneous,” he said. “Let’s go.”

***

“You’re sure this is where he was last sighted?” asked Vox Cul-Dar.

“The cameras tagged him as an Unknown Figure when he was standing upon the opposite building, looking in the direction of this one,” said Rendelac. “The Phantom Matador was in this location, and observing this building carefully. Barring some editing of the footage.”

Vox nodded. He’d parked his car a short distance from the somber building on Alpha Street, hopefully far enough that he wouldn’t attract attention from either of the large humans who stood on either side of the door. They were trying to look like they were casually loitering, but Vox could tell a guard at a post when he saw one.

“And you did suggest that there was some delay in the file, as if it was being sent elsewhere,” said Vox. “Barring the possibility of code designed to randomly place images of the Phantom Matador in footage, would you say that the time of the delay was more in keeping of observation than editing?”

“Affirmative,” said Rendelac.

“A building with two burly gentlemen who’ve donned clothing on the cheap side of expensive. A building that, if memory serves, is one of the most likely strongholds of Murk.”

“Heed well my words, Vox-Cul Dar,” said Rendelac. “I’ve finished a facial recognition algorithm on those two. They both have criminal records, and one of them does in fact have a known history of dealings with the criminal known as Murk. This building may be more dangerous than we expected when we first decided that it would be worth our time to track the Phantom Matador.”

“You are correct,” said Vox. “Caution is advised. Still, my profession requires bold steps. I do believe that Murk has a few prices on his head, and I’m sure that those in his organization are wanted as well. Just imagine if I could capture the Phantom Matador, while establishing a link between him and Murk’s organization.”

“Heed well my words,” said Rendelac. “Assuming a link there would be speculation. Especially when the Phantom Matador was observing the building rather than entering it.”

“You’re correct, of course,” said Vox. “Regardless, this building is my next stop. Wish me luck, Rendelac. It’s time to find my way inside.”

Episode 35: Breakout

Carmen visualized the security panel as clearly as she could after the brief look at it that she had when the door’s grate opened. She could feel the rock, and to a lesser extent anything that the rock was touching, but she had to hope that her memory of the buttons and controls on the panel were right where she remembered them. She mentally lifted the rock and punched it into the panel again, hearing the shouts of the two on the other side as they realized what was happening.

“Come on, I know the release button was around there somewhere…”

She hammered the rock into the panel, moving it slightly each time, hearing the frightened footfalls of the pair in the hallway rushing nearer. Just as the two arrived, Carmen propelled the rock into the control panel one last time and heard a click from her door.

“Ha!”

Carmen pushed her way through the door, not waiting for it to gently swing open. The door collided with Rillem, knocking him back into the rushing Jen and causing both of them to fall to the floor. Carmen twisted her hand back and the three stones spun back to her like a yoyo, two from her former cell and one from the Door Release button on the control panel.

Carmen picked a direction… the one away from the two on the floor… and ran. A staircase rose from the hallway, and Carmen took three steps at a time, leaving the sight of Jen and Rillem before they even made it back to their feet. She heard them shouting, and laughed. No one could catch up to her once it became a race.

At the top of the staircase, a dark alcove opened into another hall, stretching off in either direction. Carmen paused for just a second, considering both.

“Go to the left,” said a sonorous voice in the darkness.

Carmen spun and stared into the shadows. After a moment, she could just make out a figure dressed in black, wearing a red mask and a wide-brimmed hat with red lining. The Phantom Matador.

“You!”

“I was alerted to your plight by an associate,” said the Matador. “I told him you would not need my assistance, but felt it best to check on you myself. I’m so happy to see…”

Carmen leapt at the Matador, furious. He easily sidestepped her, twisting in the shadows with an unnatural speed.

“This is not a time for us to dance,” he said. “This is a time for you to escape these fiends.”

“I’d rather take you out and get captured again. And they’re not dances, they’re races! I don’t need a gatecrasher telling me what kind of sport I’m in!”

“We are all involved in a great dance, though, are we not? Life growing, developing on rocks that spin around stars in other people’s skies, in a dance that-”

Carmen jumped at the Matador again, and again he sidestepped.

“Stand still!”

“I hear her!” shouted a voice from below. Carmen looked down the stairs and heard the thundering steps of Jen and Rillem nearing. She looked back at the Phantom, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Carmen scowled and stepped through the door, looking to the right and left. Wherever he’d gone, he’d moved quickly and quietly. Carmen considered both of the routes of escape, considering the Matador’s words.

Carmen ran to the right.