Category Archives: Helix

Episode 33: Backseat Backstabbers

Igneous splashed her way out of the tub of now-warm water. Formerly a pile of ice cubes, the tub hadn’t lasted as long as she would have liked, but it did the job. She still felt hot, but it was bearable.

Zack sat on a back-facing seat of the van. His hat was on the seat next to him, and another human she didn’t recognize sat on the far seat. He was scrawnier that Zack, in a cheap, casual outfit with thin glasses. Hobbar sat in the front of the van, in the driver’s seat. He took his eyes off the road long enough to look in the rear-view mirror to see Igneous rise out of the tub, but quickly turned back to the road.

“Lookin’ good, Igneous,” said Zack. “No one’ll mistake you for a volcano now.”

“It won’t last long,” said Igneous. “We’ll need more ice. The tub’s freeze features aren’t keeping up.”

“Have you thought about something stronger?” asked Zack. “Liquid nitrogen, maybe?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” said the human in the glasses. “Liquid nitrogen’s almost definitely too cold. It might not freeze her solid, but it could make her brittle if it doesn’t kill her outright.”

“I’ve already got some,” said Igneous. “But your friend is right. It’s too early for that. Ice will have to do for now.”

“Igneous, meet Chip Creep. Haven’t figured out his real name yet. He runs the abandoned infrastructure of Helix, sells information to the highest bidder, is probably our best bet for finding Murk, and will probably stab us in the back as soon as we take our eyes off of him. Chip, meet Igneous. She can snap your spine like a twig.”

“Charmed,” said Chip.

“Why do you want to find Murk?” asked Igneous. “Shouldn’t you get out of Helix instead?”

“I don’t want Murk to decide that he needs to come after me even when I’m not in his territory. He’s also got my ID, cash, and striker pistols. Luxuries for someone in my position, but really handy luxuries.”

“Stupid human,” said Igneous. “You don’t need those things. And Murk’s likely to redouble his efforts to track you down instead of being cowed into patiently staying here. You remember what he was like on Ravelar.”

Chip looked pointedly at Zack and Hobbar glanced at the mirror again. Zack looked at the floor.

“Actually, I don’t,” said Zack. “I think that there’s something… off with my memory right now. I can’t… Igneous, I barely remembered that it was you who tipped me off about the price on my head. Murk was convinced that I would know him. I told him he had the wrong guy, but when he tossed me into that fake jungle, something about the smell jogged my memory. I’ve got no idea what’s wrong with my head at the moment.”

“There’s any number of poisons that could cause that effect,” said Igneous. “Is it possible that someone poisoned you?”

“No,” said Zack. “No one’s gotten close enough.”

“No one you saw, at least,” said Igneous.

“Or no one that you remember,” said Chip.

Zack glared at the hacker who raised his hands defensively.

“Hey, if your memory’s screwed up, you should look at all the options.”

Zack started to reply, but a chime came from Chip’s pocket.

“What was that?” asked Zack.

“Probably my phone,” said Chip.

“You brought your phone?” said Zack.

“You didn’t tell me to leave it behind,” said Chip.

“You didn’t search him for a phone?” asked Igneous.

“I was in a rush,” said Zack.

“You let me take my takeout, I didn’t think it was going to be a no-phones kind of trip,” said Chip.

“I was kidnapping you!” said Zack.

“Give me your phone,” said Igneous.

Chip looked at the rock woman, and at the fierce red glow from her eyes and the tips of the crown-like spikes at the top of her head. He sighed, reached into his pocket, and gave her the phone.

“No offense, but I hope I never have to deal with Pyrhians again,” said Chip.

“None taken,” said Igneous. “On average we can kill any human we meet. It’d be unsettling. You don’t have a security code on this?”

“I never expected to need it,” said Chip.

“It’s someone saying that they’ve secured Carmen Shift and taken her to headquarters,” said Igneous. “The racer? Isn’t that kind of kidnapping job a little high-profile for someone in your line of work?”
***
Vox Cul-Dar stepped into his car and indulged himself in slumping back into the seat. Years ago, when he’d still been on his homeworld of Skiwel, he wouldn’t have done anything that demonstrated such a lack of discipline, but the habits of humans could, as he had learned, be contagious.

“I see that you had no luck in tracking down Zack Gamma,” said Rendelac, his glowing eye shifting to look at Vox.

“No,” said Vox. “I’d have him here with me if I did.”

“The police reports indicate that there was quite a lot of violence when you went to check Carmen’s doctor. That was some time ago.”

“Fletch had beaten me there. Zack and Carmen managed to subdue her, if you can believe it. Zack slipped away, though. I’ve been trying to find him ever since. No luck, though. He knows how to stay unseen, I’ll give him that much.”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “You may yet profit from this venture. The recognition software in Helix’s cameras is easy to view for me. I have searched it for people useful to you, and saw a clip of the Phantom Matador. It’s strange, though… the file came to me slower than expected. It’s as if all the security footage in this city is being filtered somewhere. Still, I have a last known location for the Matador if you wish to pursue him.”

“With how things went with Carmen earlier today, I doubt that I’ve still got that job,” said Vox.

“Carmen has not yet filed a request to remove you from her case,” said Rendelac. “She may not have had the time. Still, if you apprehend the Phantom Matador before she does, she would be oglibated to pay the Desperate Measures Agency.”

“And the DMA would be obligated to pay me,” said Vox. “Yes. You are correct. Tell me where this Matador was last seen, Rendelac. I may be able to eke a profit out of this city yet.”

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Episode 30: The Scenic Route

Carmen climbed into the taxi and nodded to the driver.

“I need to get to Veskid City.”

“Where in Veskid City?” asked the driver. She was a human, though possibly a modified one. Carmen couldn’t tell if the green hair was a minor genetic splice or a well applied dye job.

“Just let me off when I get there,” she said. “I can make it to the hotel once I finally get out of Helix.”

“Not a fan of our fair city?”

“Nah, it’s not that,” said Carmen, settling into the seat and closing her door. “It’s… been a hard day. I’ve just gotta get home and hope that I can get in touch with someone.”

“I get that,” said the driver. “Buckle up, I’ll get you home soon.”

Carmen ignored the driver’s advice as the taxi lifted off the ground and merged into the hover-road that followed the gently curving land-road meant for ground traffic. The knowledge that Fletch had no idea where Zack was didn’t calm her as much as she hoped it would. Any number of less efficient assassins might have found him without letting the DMA know.

“Hey, isn’t the best way out of the city through that turn?” asked Carmen.

“It seems like it if you’re not around here very often,” said the driver. “The way the city curves and spirals can mess with you. I thought I knew the city before I got this job, but then I figured out just how much I had to learn.”

“Are you sure?” said Carmen. “It looks like a pretty straight shot. I can see Veskid City.”

“That’s not approved airspace. I know it looks clear, and it’d probably be safe enough, but they’re strict about me sticking to the regulations. The good news is that this’ll at least be scenic.”

“You’re not trying to run the meter up on me, are you?”

“Nah. Though I’ve gotta say that it’s tempting. I don’t meet a celebrity very often.”

“I appreciate it,” said Carmen. It was usually awesome to be recognized, but given the day she’d had she was starting to think that Zack might be right about getting a wig, at least until she got him offworld. Assuming she could find him before the next race, at least.

The taxi lifted higher, rising between a series of archways that connected two buildings.

“Is this seriously still approved airspace? Getting this close to a building?”

“I couldn’t resist, sorry. We’re only out of bounds for a few moments this way, and views like this make the scenic route worth it. Say, do you think you could sign an autograph for me?”

“Uh, sure,” said Carmen. “I don’t have anything to write with, though. Or paper.”

The cab suddenly stopped under the archway of the bridge. Carmen felt the inertia jolt her forward, but she rolled with it easily, narrowly avoiding a disorienting crash with the seat in front of her.

“Hey!” she shouted.

Her door was ripped open. There was a tiny walkway under the bridge, and someone had stepped from the shadows to quickly wrench open the door. He was reaching for her as two other humans stepped out as well. Moving fast, she grabbed the man’s hand and yanked him into the car, tossing him into the other seat.

The other two thugs paused, surprised. Carmen pushed the advantage and jumped out of the car. The cab driver shouted something at her, but Carmen didn’t wait to hear it. She didn’t have time for people who set her up.

“The next one who tries something goes down to the street instead of into the cab,” said Carmen. “And they’ll take the fast route.”

One of the two remaining men unholstered a pistol and aimed it.

“We’re supposed to keep you in town,” he said. “One way or the other.”

“Yeah, that’s not happening,” said Carmen. “Look, I don’t know who’s paying you, but it can’t be worth what’s going to happen to you if you don’t let me walk outta here. If someone’s that eager to meet me, they can go through my agent like everyone else.”

As she finished speaking, she caught motion out of the corner of her eye. She risked a glance across the underside of the bridge where another figure waited. A black outfit comprised of a mask, cape, and wide brimmed hat, all complete with red trimming. The Phantom Matador.

“You,” she said. She turned to the man with the pistol. “You’re working for him? Seriously, him?”

A jolt of electricity came from behind as the thug in the car reached out and touched the base of her neck with a metal rod. Carmen spasmed and, after a moment, collapsed on the ground.

“Took you long enough, Rillem,” said the driver. “I was worried you three were going to let her get away.”

“She surprised me,” said Rillem as he and the two outside the car started getting Carmen back into the taxi. “Why’s Murk need her, Jen?”

“No clue,” said the driver. “Chip’s message wasn’t clear on that. Which one of you let slip that we were working for Murk? We shouldn’t exactly be advertising that.”

“None of us did,” said one of the thugs outside of the car. “She just looked across the bridge and… I don’t know.”

Jen looked across the expanse to the walkway on the other side of the bridge. There was nothing there.

“Nothing to worry about, I suppose,” she said. “Let’s just get her back to Murk. I’ve gotta get the cab back soon as it is.”

Episode 28: Covert Negotiations

Chip opened the door to his spacious apartment, bearing a sack of supplies in one hand and the finest Haukreen takeout in all of Helix. He tossed both onto the front room’s coffee table, and ran into the monitor room as a formality, but was confused by the actual red warning light on the central monitor. No situation had ever warranted red since he wrote the software. Approaching for a closer look, the screen told him what he knew it would say but what he hoped it would not.

LUSCA HABITAT BREACHED. GAMMA STATUS: ABSENT.

The recreation of the underjungles where Murk kept his pet Lusca vine wasn’t as high a priority, but it was where Zack Gamma had been imprisoned. Murk had made it clear that nothing was more important than keeping Gamma contained. Ordinarily, problems in Murk’s business weren’t Chip’s problems to worry about, but the Underjungles wouldn’t have been possible without Chip’s assistance and knowledge of Helix’s infrastructure.

At the time, a jungle project seemed like it wouldn’t be problematic at all. The hardest part was translating Helix’s biosphere generation capabilities to a portion of its substructure that wasn’t initially compatible with the technology. After that, it had just been a matter of monitoring the system and keeping the legitimate authorities from discovering it. He’d resented it later when he learned that the gardening project would actually make him a warden if Murk ever had an appropriate prisoner, but by then he was too crucial to the process.

“Show me how he escaped.”

Chip watched a feed. A Pyrhian rock woman broke in through the studio facility that doubled as a service entrance, though she was clearly close enough to a metamorphosis that she shouldn’t have been so active. He watched, quickly scanning through the feed until it caught up with the present, causing a deeper probe that led to the unsettling possibility that the data had been altered. He dismissed the invasive thought and began tapping into alternate security cameras outside the office in question, until he caught an image of Zack Gamma entering a van outside the studio.

“Where did they go?”

The next feed followed the van as it left in a hurry. A number of cameras on Alpha and Beta street tracked its movements, but the van did a good job of sticking to the areas that had no cameras, or where the cameras had broken down without being replaced. Fortunately, no easy exits from the city flagged the van or Zack Gamma’s departure. Still, he needed a way to either track Gamma or gain leverage.

“What did Murk do with Carmen Shift?”

Chip saw a few quick video clips and read a report. She had been released back into the city with no real information about what had happened. Ordinarily an idiotic move, but Murk had been more concerned about how much media attention a missing asteroid racer could bring. She was still in the city, last seen leaving a police station. Chip hated acting proactively on Murk’s behalf as it would do more to reduce his autonomy outside of Murk’s operations every time, but he bore the responsibility for locating Zack Gamma and needed bait to lure him out before he left Helix.

“Contact… I don’t know, find someone not currently doing anything, some of Murk’s people. We need to retrieve Carmen Shift right now.”

“Belay that,” said a voice from behind him.

Chip spun and saw Zack Gamma stepping out from the closet. He was holding the basic ray pistol that Chip had bought years ago and hidden in his desk for safety. Chip looked from it to the desk drawer.

“Sorry, I’ve got a bad habit of rifling through drawers, seeing if I can find anything useful. You should really keep something like this in a safe. That makes it harder to get to, of course, so there are a few different opinions on that matter.”

“How did you find me?” asked Chip. “It wouldn’t have been possible to trace my signal from the studio to here, at least not without better hacking skills than I have.”

“Yeah, but your coding’s a little too intuitive,” said Zack. “I saw how you laid out the cameras in the Underjungle. You numbered them pretty consistantly there. You had other cameras up in your different satellite stations, numbered the same way. It wasn’t too hard to set up a grid. Now, I admit I had this whole building to choose from when I got here, so I took a gamble that someone with their eyes on the hardware that runs Helix would want the top floor. I didn’t have time to find what I needed on your computer there before you came in the front door and I had to hide.”

“Right. So… you’re the one with the gun. What do you want?”

“It’s that easy?”

“Absolutely,” said Chip. “I’m in no position to do much. Plus I don’t particularly like Murk. All I ask is that you don’t let him know that I did anything to help you.”

“Deal,” said Zack. “First, I need to know where my stuff is. I could live without my Purcellian Strikers, but my ID and money are kind of important.”

“I assume Murk still has them. I have a direct transport to the basement of his headquarters, but he’s put a guard there recently to keep me from showing up unannounced. No guards immediately outside the front door, but there’s usually a stronger force just inside. Then again, I’ve got no cameras there so I can’t say either way.”

“Good to know,” said Zack. “Next, I’ll need a safe way out of town.”

“There are plenty of safe ways, there just aren’t many unobserved ways. I could always look the other way. The trouble is convincing Murk that I couldn’t notice you in time. I’m usually not obliged to help him out, but you’re a special case.”

“We can work that out on the way,” said Zack. “I think you need to come with me since I’m so special. I’m sure Murk’ll be understanding. Grab your takeout, and let’s go.”

Chip nodded, walked back to the living room, and grabbed his dinner. He wasn’t wild about accompanying Zack for this escapade, but he also knew that he wanted Zack out of the apartment before he noticed the most crucial piece of information.

Zack might have asked the computer to belay the instruction to have Carmen located and captured, but the computer didn’t listen to anyone except him.
***

Much earlier, on another world…

Azar wore his best suit, though he still felt underdressed. He hadn’t yet spent much on his wardrobe since he became the wealthiest person he had ever heard of, and knew in his mind that he should, but he wasn’t sure how to begin looking for the best outfits that money could buy, or even what he’d look like in an outfit like that. His still-shaggy appearance had been improved, though, and in a suit he gave the impression of a ragged and lovable stuffed animal instead of a slob.

The lawyer on the other side of the table, Sister Barris of the Order of Fierce Mercy, adjusted her WimpHelm as she turned the page. She smiled at the relatively short final lines of the document and looked back at Azar.

“What do you think?”

“I agree with our Baristerbot,” she said, pleasantly stacking the papers into a neat pile. “You dotted every i on the important papers, never missed a day of work, and weren’t ever at fault in any way that would cause you to forfeit your earnings.”

Azar laughed, and fell back into his chair.

“That’s such a relief,” he said. “You’re the first lawyer who would speak to me after an initial meeting. Everyone else said that I probably wouldn’t have a case.”

“Most of the best lawyers on the planet are all members of organizations that are subsidiaries of BristleCorp and couldn’t legally help you anyway, and a lot of the others are easily bullied by them. It’s not a guaranteed loss in court, but some might see it that way. BristleCorp even owns the bank that forged the money for you.”

“So as an unaffiliated religious organization, your lawyers aren’t on the take.”

“The Order of Fierce Mercy isn’t strictly a religious order, but yes. We have no corporate affiliations, and believe in strong representation for those who may not be well equipped to find counsel elsewhere.”

“It’s horrible the way that they’ve tried to keep me from finding help,” said Azar. “I’ve been afraid to spend any of this.”

“Consider it the death throes of a corrupt and horrible system,” said Barris. “You signed on to a high risk engineering program that would be illegal if it was done today, even for someone with your education. The system was meant to be rigged so that no one could ever make much money. But you never paid for things at the company store on credit. You always brought your own lunch, borrowed from friends and family instead of the corporate banks when needed, and invested wisely. The high interest that was meant to make you owe them money worked against them for you. Most of the other people in the program who even came close to getting rich would perish in some of the deep space engineering projects, or at least wind up having to spend all of their payoffs in massive medical bills. In short, you played a game that the casino rigged, but the house lost. And anyone who works in casinos enough knows that the house will do anything not to lose. And in your case, they’ve lost more than anyone would have imagined was possible except as a theoretical thought exercise.”

“So it’s a blatant case of them going back on their word for me?”

“Not as blatant as it could be. They were very careful about when and where they said certain things. But yes, there is a definite promise made to you, and the promise made to you will be broken if they don’t pay you. The other issue is that this is a matter of self survival; they’ve given you more money than they can afford to spare, and it may cause their overarching corporation to collapse. Ordinarily, that would be a case of it merely being their fault, but in the case of this particular corporate collapse, there’s a chance that them paying you could negatively impact the galactic economy.”

“Doesn’t everything done by corporations do that, though?”

“Ha! Yes, yes. But in this case, it’s a bit worse. If they can show that the damage will be bad enough, they may convince the legal system to make it illegal to pay you directly, while only receiving a slap on the wrist for punishment.”

“How could they have made the offer, then?”

“Like I said, it was a rigged game,” she said. “And so is this one. Don’t worry, though, you seem to have a knack for slipping through the cracks when they rig things.”

“That doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.”

“I’m not going to lie to you,” she said. “It’ll be an uphill fight. And if they hadn’t already paid you, I wouldn’t expect us to be able to get it out of them. But since you’ve already got it… an admission from them that they both had money to give you and that they, at one time, understood their obligation in the same way that you did… I think we’ve got a great chance. It’ll all work out, sir. Trust me.”

Episode 27: Cooling Off

Zack pushed open the door and saw a room filled with computer screens. It was a comfortable office, if a bit stale. A single terminal built into the desk was the only visible interface between the monitors, most of which appeared to be playing camera feeds rather than displaying different programs. Scraps of paper covered every flat surface, but no other sign of recent occupation could be seen.

“We’re clear,” he said. He felt the heat of Igneous approach from the stairs behind him. The glow that grew brighter the closer she came to metamorphosis added some life to the depressing room, though Zack got the sense that Igneous saw it as a bad sign. He didn’t know any good ways to ask about the situation, and he knew for a fact that Igneous wouldn’t want to talk about it if anything more urgent was happening. Still, if Igneous was helping him now he wanted to know her limits.

“It could be some residual psychic pollen talking,” said Zack, “but I think you’re a bit cooler up here.”

“No exertion,” said Igneous, pushing her way past Zack and toward the door on the other side of the room. “I can… take my time… conserve.”

“Let’s stay here for a minute, then,” said Zack. “I want to poke around a bit, and the air’s cool.”

“No,” said Igneous.

“It’s the bad end of a bad summer out there,” said Zack. “The kind of heat that could make someone pick up frostbite as a hobby.”

“Not that… bad,” said Igneous, reaching the door. “Stay here. I’m… going out.”

“Don’t you think we should stick together for just a bit?” said Zack. “I may still be on the run, and… I think you said you didn’t want to be around me while I’m wanted, I get that. But I think we’ve got a few minutes here, we could coordinate.”

“Meet me… out there,” said Igneous. She put her hand on the door, and took a deep breath. “Big van. Check the… check the back.”

“What?” Gamma asked. Igneous ignored him and pushed the door open, stepping down the staircase.

Zack wanted to follow to make sure she was fine, but knew that he was behind enemy lines in this room. Murk had kept his pistols, his camera, and most of the tools that would make examining this room simple enough, and without them he had to rely on technique alone. A quick look at the monitors showed that most of them were presenting camera feeds of Murk’s recreation of the Underjungles of Ravelar, though a few of them showed other rooms like this one, or living quarters. Zack looked at the monitor, and saw a media program running, capturing the video feeds. The regular feeds were organized by names that began with “SecurityCreep”, and even included one that showed Zack in the office as he searched it, while all the jungle feeds seemed to be organized under the name GammaZ followed by a number that refered to a location within the underbrush, a system that Zack was able to follow when he determined which camera feeds went with the flytrap, the lusca vine, and the door that he and Igneous used to escape.

“That slimy mud puddle wanted to watch me die from the comfort of his own fish tank. I’d hate to be the editor who has to give him the bad news…”

Zack used the terminal to access the program to the best of his ability. The program wouldn’t edit his departure through this security room without first shutting down the recording process. so he ended the SecurityCreep feeds. He examined them, removed himself from the departing feed, and tracked the video back far enough to discover the occupant of the rooms. He looked over the feeds to get a good look at the person who occupied this and other offices across Helix, and even saw a few that contained Murk.

After finding everything that seemed helpful from the videos, Zack left the office. The short winding stair led down to a door that had been ripped from its hinges. Zack panicked at first, but then saw that the door’s old security measures had been easily disabled. That part of the entrance hadn’t seemed like Igneous’ style, but with a little luck it meant that the broken door wouldn’t have alerted anyone to their presence (or more importantly, their absence) just yet.

Looking down the street he saw a large van parked a short distance away, just far enough that it probably wouldn’t be noticed on an individual building’s security feeds. He approached and saw that its back doors were hanging open, with a dim light pouring out from them. Zack approached and opened the back of the door, revealing a large steel tub between two seats that ran along the sides of the back third of the van. He climbed inside and looked into the tub to see it filled with ice. A rocky shape was just barely visible beneath the ice, and it shifted as Zack entered its line of sight.

“I’m sorry, Igneous,” said Zack. “Makes sense that you’d wanna leave. In the future, though, lemme know that you’ve got an ice tub to run off to. I was getting worried.”

“She’s been like that all day,” said a voice behind him. Zack turned and recognized the Crinlian that he and Carmen had met before their attempt to leave Helix.

“She showed up at my place. I don’t know where she got the van or the giant tub. It’s like a reverse hot tub, she leaves it and the ice starts to refreeze.”

“Sounds like someone went to a lot of trouble to reinvent the freezer,” said Zack. “I’m guessing you took care of the security on the door before Igneous smashed her way in. I wasn’t expecting to see you again.”

“Believe me, I didn’t want you to,” he said. “Call me Hobbar. I give Igneous tips on what’s happening in town sometimes, and when I mentioned you she roped me into helping to find you again.”

“Any other agent and that might’ve killed me,” said Zack. “I should thank you, though. Igneous saved me in there, so in a way you did too.”

“Any time. What’s next for you and Igneous, since I’m apparently wrapped up in this now?”

“I can’t speak for Igneous, but I need to find a friend. I also need to get out of Helix before it causes me any more problems with Murk.”

Hobbar shook his head. He glanced at Igneous’ tub and lowered his voice.

“I’ll be honest, when Murk gets his claws into something he generally doesn’t let go. And he has ways of finding things. Unless you’ve got a ticket to get offworld before dawn, I don’t think getting from Helix to Veskid City’s going to be enough.”

“Then maybe it’s time to hurt Murk’s operation,” said Zack. “We surprise him, take the fight to his door, and get out of town while he’s still trying to figure out what’s happening. Make sure he’s too busy to track me until I can get off the planet. He’ll never see it coming.”

“Right,” said Hobbar. He watched Igneous’ ice tub carefully. “Never.”

Episode 26: Lair of the Lusca Vine

Zack was pulled along the rough floor, the roots and rocks of the artificial underjungle shaking and scraping him. The thin vine around his ankle felt weak enough that he might be able to break it off if he could get a moment to work at it, but the rubble was disorienting. He only had one hand to work with as the other hand was still clutching the lumisphere, something he was determined not to lose.

“This way, human,” said Igneous’ voice. “It’s dangerous that way.”

The voice was beginning to sound less and less like Igneous. He had no idea how that plant worked. Either he was getting out of its range, or the plant was recognizing that Igneous’ voice wasn’t what he wanted to hear and was trying to shift to something else that might be more persuasive.

The tiny strand of the Lusca Vine around his ankle snapped up suddenly, and Zack was tossed into the air. He collided with two other, larger vines that were stretched across the path between two trees. One coiled around the hand that held the lumisphere, the other twisted around one of his legs. Held in the air for a moment, the tiny vine shot up and wrapped around his ankle again as the three vines pulled him back down to the ground.

The rough track along the floor resumed, now with three vines the size of small tree branches holding him to the ground. There was something different about the larger branches, something beyond their raw strength, like they were pinching him repeatedly. A quick look to the hand with the lumisphere confirmed strange growths on the vine, growths that reminded him of the suckers on an octopus or squid’s tentacles.

“I’m over here, human,” said Igneous’ voice. “This way!”

“Workin’ on it!” shouted Zack. He grabbed at the vine that gripped the hand with the lumisphere, but he wasn’t able to loosen it. He only had moments to try, though, as a sudden collision between his back and a stumpy stalagmite shook his hands apart. Twisting one of the vines off would be tricky even if it wasn’t actively moving and shaking him, but it didn’t seem possible as it was.

He looked down the path the vines were following, trying to get his bearings. He twisted to avoid another rough impact with an impending tree and snapped his arm around it as he was pulled past. He shouted in pain as the sudden stop jolted his shoulder and the vines continued pulling. Zack tried to pass the lumisphere to the hand around the tree, but the vine pulling the arm made it impossible for the two hands to join under Zack’s terms.

“Where are you?” said Igneous’ voice.

“Closer to the Lusca vine, you lousy flytrap!”

The thicker vine around Zack’s leg loosened slightly, giving Zack a chance to secure his grip on the tree. The vine was only repositioning itself, however, and slithered around him enough to get a grip on his leg and lower torso as well. Zack shouted in pain as the pull of the vines increased dramatically, making his grip loosen.

“Flytrap?” came Igneous’ voice, echoing through the darkness. “What’s a flytrap?”

“It’s what YOU are, you stupid…”

Zack paused. The voice was sounding more like Igneous than it had since he first heard it.

“Igneous, is that you? Really you?!”

“Of course, you foolish human,” came a shouted reply. “Help me find you! I think I’m getting closer, but everything echoes down here. The acoustics are terrible.”

Zack remembered the plant insisting that the acoustics were bad, but shook the thought away. Any shot at survival was worth taking at this point.

“Some sort of vine thing’s got me!” shouted Zack. “It’s-”

A sudden concerted tug from the vines yanked Zack from the tree, and he shouted as the rough ride through the underjungle resumed. Moments later, Zack was pulled into a clearing of sorts. Other plants seemed to stop at an ill-defined treeline that surrounded a crack in the ground, a crack ringed by three stalagmites. And within the crack, made visible by the dim light of Zack’s lumisphere, was the Lusca Vine.

A writhing mass of vegetation all connected to an oblong, lumpy root in the center reminded Zack of a potato. The roots and vines emerging from it swatted the air, as three larger ones shot toward Zack as soon as the light from his lumisphere entered the clearing. Zack saw the sucker-like growths on these largest vines were more well developed than the ones that, so far, had merely been pinching him. They looked like tiny mouths with tiny mandibles, some meant for piercing others meant for grinding. These largest vines moved slowly, and looked less capable of entwining or ensnaring prey, but as one lifted into the air over Zack he wondered if, perhaps, the largest vines had a different purpose.

The raised vine positioned itself carefully and Zack mentally prepared to be clubbed by the equivalent of a small tree when suddenly the vines paused. The sudden stillness was eerie after the writhing movement moments before. Zack wasted no time in trying to pull the vines off of him, but the vines remained tight.

Then he smelled the smoke and saw the light. A dull, red light entered the clearing as a rocky figure pushed its way beyond the treeline, the branch it pushed out of its way beginning to smoulder and smoke. Zack gasped in recognition as Igneous’ light divided the Lusca Vine’s attention. A series of vines all shot toward her, and with her slower speed they easily ensnared her… before quickly recoiling as they began to smoke. Other vines moved toward her, but each of them started to catch fire at they came in contact with her as she slowly pushed her way toward Zack.

Zack felt the heat as Igneous approached, and found it hard to look away from what looked like a walking pile of volcanic rock barely holding itself together. His attention was brought back to his impending demise by the sound of creaking and groaning wood that came from the vine preparing to club him. The living cudgel sped down just as Igneous jumped into its path, grabbing it as it collided with her.

The vines surrounding Zack loosened and surged toward Igneous, each beginning to sizzle as they came in contact with her. She ignored them and wrestled with the largest vine. She looked over her shoulder at Zack, scowling from the effort.

Zack took the hint, scrambled to his feet, and ran. The two other clubbing vines attempted to smash him as he approached the treeline, but neither one had positioned itself as carefully as the first did, and with their slower speeds Zack was able to easily dodge them. He entered the jungle, held the lumisphere in front of him, and ran.

“This way, human!” came Igneous’ false voice from the distant telepathic plant.
Zack hoped that the plant’s voice wouldn’t prove to be disorienting as he tried to get away from the Lusca Vine. His running slowed as he realized that the jungle had other dangers, and he wasn’t sure which way to go.

While he was planning his next move, Igneous ran up behind him. She pointed and Zack moved. She was moving slower than he could, even slower than he remembered her, but she was stable. Zack looked back and saw many vines cautiously following.

Remembering Murk’s comment that the Lusca Vine was drawn to the light and deciding that Igneous would be light enough for the present, he squeezed the lumisphere until it reached its brightest setting. He tossed the lumisphere through the underbrush and was pleased to see the vines surging in the direction of the light that wasn’t accompanied by Igneous’ oppressive heat. Zack smiled, and turned back to follow Igneous’ path, hoping that he’d bought them some time.

“You’re getting close, human,” said Igneous’ voice, but from the darkness ahead.

“Igneous, wait!” said Zack.

Igneous didn’t slow down in time, and the vice-like maw snapped from the darkness, clamping onto her arm. Igneous looked at it for a second as the plant began to smoke before deciding that it was worth her time to pry the plant’s mouth open again and push it to the side. The plant recoiled, and Igneous and Zack passed it safely.

Soon, they reached the very door that Zack had found before hearing Igneous’ voice from the darkness. It was broken, though, ripped from its hinges by something from the other side. A staircase with a dim light existed beyond. Zack took an eager step through the door and collapsed onto the staircase, finally free from the recreation of the underjungles of Ravelar.

Igneous leaned against the door frame, exhausted.

Zack took a moment to look at Igneous. He could tell it was her, but she’d never looked this way. Extreme cracks covered her surface, and the glow from her eyes and the tips of her crown of stone were intense. A distinct odor of brimstone filled the air, a scent he could notice now that the overpowering aroma of the jungle was behind them.

“Igneous,” he said. “I can’t believe that you’re here. Listen, I don’t know if you’re interested in the bounty on me, but one way or another I’m grateful. A bullet from the DMA almost seems like fun compared to… well, you saw it.”

“I told you before, human,” said Igneous, slowly. She took a deep breath and her internal glow intensified momentarily. “I… owed you. I’m not… eager to collect… your bounty.”

“Oh?” said Zack. “When was that?”

“When I told you about… the bounty.”

Zack stared at Igneous and frowned.

“You did, didn’t you. You said I’d be dead in twelve minutes.”

“Of course I did,” said Igneous. “Are you more of… of a simpleton than you… than you appear?”

Zack shook his head.

“I think… I think I’ve been having problems remembering things lately.”

Episode 25: A Voice in the Dark

Carmen paced in the police station’s waiting room, too exhausted to sit still. She’d searched the hangar where she’d woken up, but didn’t have any clue where to begin looking for Zack. She decided that checking with the professional law enforcement for Helix would be more effective than her own efforts, even though Zack had told her that he was worried that any contact with law enforcement would lead to his swift capture. If she’d known how long she’d have to wait in such an unpleasantly lit, stale room she might have reconsidered.

She knew she only had three days before her next race, and she’d been planning on spending at least some of the time before then practicing. She wondered, not for the first time, how horrible it would make her if, after two days, she gave up looking and focused on the race. Looking for someone who might be dead felt like a waste, and putting a race on hold for someone who might just be missing felt like even more of a waste. In the less-than-legal races she experienced back in the Penumbra League, there would’ve been no question; the team or family or gang would come first, the race would come later. Still, races in the Penumbra League could be formed, cancelled or rescheduled at the drop of a hat since there weren’t corporate sponsor deals on the line and media coverage.

She wondered, not for the first time, just how much of a sell out she was after three years, and how much selling out a person could do while still being cool. Not peer pressure cool, but internal, self-analyzed cool.

“Ms. Shift?”

Carmen paused mid-pace. A human woman wearing the green uniform of Helix’s police had stepped behind the force-shield protected service desk. Her helmet obscured most of her head, but left her face visible. It was emblazoned with a shield that contained the image of a star, which in turn contained the image of a double helix. The helix was set over the drawing of a thin scroll or banner that said Officer Tacara, followed by a long number that Carmen didn’t have the patience to read. She decided that the badge’s logo looked more impressive as the three-foot tall brass carving on the wall behind the desk. Carmen changed directions and approached the officer expectantly.

“Yes?”

“We were able to find some traces of your car on the ground outside Helix, but nothing that suggests where it might be now,” said Officer Tacara. “The hangar ports on that side have all either been searched remotely or aren’t in active use. More to the point, we looked into the hangars on landing fifty-three, but found nothing.”

“Are you sure?” asked Carmen. “The elevator definitely said fifty-three.”

“We personally sent officers to check landing fifty-three on the west side of Helix,” said Tacara. “Only seven of the original twelve hangars on that side are accessible anymore, the others were all decommissioned and sealed off.”

“Could someone be using one of the hangars that you think might be sealed?”

“Maybe,” said Tacara. “In fact, we’ve found some smugglers using sealed hangars before. We’re looking into the possibility, but opening sealed parts of Helix takes time; most of them were closed off due to safety concerns that need to be addressed.”

“Well, keep looking,” said Carmen. “Someone in Helix stole my car.”

“Ma’am, we’re doing everything we can,” said Tacara. “On another note… we found the remains of the tractor beam that you say acquired your car, and the fragments of Helix’s wall that held it in place.”

“So, you can confirm my story?”

“Mostly. Analysis of the rubble, and the portion of the wall it fell from, are consistent with the sort of molecular debonding that occurs with petrakinetic energy.”

Carmen drummed her fingers on the portion of the desk that was on her side of the force shield.

“I might’ve forgotten to mention a few things… but we were under attack. What was I supposed to do?”

“I’m sure you did what you thought was necessary,” said Tacara, making a note on the desk’s terminal. “The investigation will likely find that you’re in the clear, but it’s possible that the city of Helix will need to fine you for damages if it’s determined that you went over and above the necessary actions .”

“Right, sure, if that happens I can be reached through the racing federation.”

“We’ll be in touch, then,” said Tacara. “Do you have transportation back to Veskid City from here?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” said Carmen, turning for the exit. She hadn’t come in with high hopes of success given the state of Helix, but ultimately her car was replaceable. As she left the station and stepped onto the street, she wondered how long she’d have to wait, but as she passed one of Alpha Street’s alleys, the answer came almost immediately.

“I’m surprised that you risked blowing Zack’s cover over a car,” came a voice from the darkness between buildings. “Why would you do that?”

Carmen looked into the darkness.

“Who’s there?” she asked.

“Me,” said a voice behind her. Carmen spun and looked into the eyes of Fletch. Her blue suit crackled with energy as the stealth functionality powered down and the dangerous blaster in her hands began to power up.

“How…?”

“Ventrilospeak bounces my voice, and sneaking up on people is simple. Where’s Zack?”

“So the bounty’s still on his head?”

“Of course,” said Fletch. “It won’t leave. It’ll hound him until his dying day.”

“Awesome,” said Carmen. “Sorry, this was the fastest way I could think of checking to see if you people had found him or not.”

“What?”

“I figured Zack knows how you people work, so if he was worried about the DMA listening in on the police then it was probably right. So I figured talking to the police without mentioning him would bring some of you out of the woodwork to find him if he was safe.”

“So… he’s not with you?”

“No,” said Carmen. “And not with any of you people either. I’ll tell you what, though, if you want to assume I’m lying, go for it. Keep that reticle on me. It should help Zack to make his headstart that much bigger. And thanks again for the info.”

Fletch grimaced and powered down her blaster. She walked past Carmen, into the alley.

“You’ll definitely be watched, Shift,” said Fletch as she passed into the shadows. “But next time, stay out of our way.”

Carmen grinned as Fletch walked away. She turned back to the sidewalk and picked up the pace, secure in the knowledge that wherever Zack was, he was probably safe.
***
Zack pushed aside another handful of the rope-like vines, wishing that they wouldn’t grow so close together. In the dark, he could visualize them as coarse ropes, but he knew that if he turned the light on they would look disturbingly like green muscle and sinew. The evolutionary convergence of that particular kind of biological structure was well documented, even in plants (or the plant-like life forms that filled similar niches on other worlds), but merely documenting it didn’t keep the recreation from seeming unnatural.

He carefully activated the lumisphere after emerging from that particular vegetative clump and examined his surroundings. He only had Murk’s word for it that he’d ever been in the Underjungles of Ravelar, but he had a feeling that this recreation of them likely paled in comparison to the real thing, no matter what his own feelings of deja vu were telling him. The natural ecosystem of a true cave system would almost certainly develop differently than the constraints of the (admittedly massive) subhull structures within Helix would allow, and Zack felt that he was probably fighting through less foliage than he would be encountering in the real thing. The lumisphere’s dim light seemed bright to Zack’s eyes, and provided a glimpse of a number of narrow “trails” betwen some of the larger trees, stalactites and pipes.

He shut off the lumisphere and continued his walk. He was following a wall, to the best of his abilities, hoping to find a maintenance hatch or forgotten doorway that Murk’s attention to detail had overlooked. The growths of vegetation didn’t always make it possible, but he was able to follow what he hoped was part of the peculiar curve of what might have been an undersection of Helix’s strange roadways.

The situation was made worse by Zack’s exhaustion. He hadn’t had a full evening’s sleep since Igneous warned him about the Desperate Measures Agency’s bounty on his head, and he hadn’t had time to look into the mystery of why they wanted him in the first place. His best window for escape from Veskid would be with Carmen’s upcoming race, but Helix alone was proving harder to leave than he ever expected the planet to be.

The underjungle was making everything even worse. He wasn’t sure how a place could be both humid and clammy, but the plant-filled chamber was pulling it off. The oppressive scent of vegetation in all the states between initial growth and final decay would have taken a toll at the best of times, but under the circumstances it was truly exhausting.

He found a strange, oddly straight depression in the wall. It confused him at first until he recognized it as the shape of a door. He quickly located a handle and began turning, but his heart sank. It was locked. He backed up, took a deep breath, and ran at the door, striking it with his shoulder, but only succeeded in rattling it. He clutched his shoulder, mentally adding it to the ever increasing list of aches and bruises he’d been accumulating over the past few hours.

“Gamma? Is that you?”

Zack’s head snapped in the direction of the voice. It sounded familiar, but out of place in the darkness of the jungle.

“Hello?”

“This way, human,” said the voice. “Hurry, there’s no time!”

“Igneous?” said Gamma. “Is that you, Igneous? How’d you find me?”

“Half of Helix knows you’re here,” she said. “It’s not safe. Quiet, there’s a hidden way out.”

Zack took a step into the dark, moving away from the door.

“I think I found another way out over here,” said Zack. “There’s a door, but it’s patched up tighter’n a rag doll with a starch problem. Strong as you are, though, you might be able to break it.”

“Too risky,” said Igneous. “I’m closer to this way out. You probably just found a maintenance closet.”

“Right,” said Zack, stepping through the underbrush, moving away from the wall.

“Closer,” said Igneous. “Almost here.”

“It’s hard to tell where you are,” said Zack. “How far until I get to you?”

“Any step now.”

“Your voice sounds the same,” said Zack, stepping closer. “No louder.”

“The acoustics are strange here.”

“They are,” said Zack, clutching the lumisphere. “I’m going to risk some light.”

“No need,” said Igneous.

Zack activated the lumisphere anyway and recoiled at the sight of a plant with a vice-like maw. The trunk of the plant lunged forward, but slower than Zack could recoil.

“This way,” came Igneous’ voice. Zack looked at the plant creature. The voice he was hearing seemed to be coming from somewhere beyond the plant.

“How do you do that?” asked Zack. “Some sort of psychotropic pollen?”

“There’s no time,” said Igneous’ voice. “Just a little closer.”

“I didn’t think Lusca would be so easy to avoid,” said Zack. “Plus you seem pretty immobile. I’m guessing you’re not the vine Murk warned me about.”

Zack clutched the lumisphere until the light deactivated. He turned to walk away.

“This way, human. The way out is this way. That way’s dangerous.”

“Sure it is,” said Zack.

His foot connected with a vine that hadn’t been there before. He gasped as the vine wrapped itself around his ankle and pulled. Zack tripped and hit the ground, suddenly being pulled through the underbrush, dragged toward the deadly Lusca Vine.

Episode 22: Dangerous Information

Three strong, slow knocks rang from the metallic door of Hobbar’s hideaway. The youth-like alien looked up from the table where he’d been evenly dividing his attention between a light dinner and two screens, one showing the latest news reports for the area and the other a game where teams competed to organize the fruits mixed in their fruit baskets in surprisigly violent ways. Hobbar’s people were skilled at multitasking, but the knocks on the door came with a resounding gravity that suggested someone who would want undivided attention.

Hobbar hopped from the table and opened the door expecting to see one of, perhaps, three people who knew about this location. Instead he was hit with a wave of heat and greeted with the sight of Igneous, the Pyrhian rock woman. She was leaning against the door frame, apparently exhausted, and covered with so many glowing cracks that it was hard to discern her usual facial features. She looked at Hobbar and pushed her way past, entering the marginally cooler room. Hobbar worried that it wouldn’t be cooler much longer.

“Igneous? How did you find this place. Maybe five people know about it.”

“More than that,” she said. She took a few deep breaths, the shade of light issuing from the cracks in her skin changing with the airflow. Hobbar almost thought she was done talking, but she coughed and continued. “I’ve made a point of keeping tabs on you ever since our working relationship began. Hope you don’t mind… occupational habit.”

Hobbar felt comfortable enough to scowl while Igneous had her back to him.

“I… suppose that’s fine,” said Hobbar. “How did you find me, though? It’s important.”

“No it’s not,” said Igneous. “No time. Where’s Zack. And who else knows about him?”

“I’ve lost track of Gamma,” said Hobbar. “He and that Shift lady got caught in a tractor beam before they left. There was an accident, but I’m pretty sure they were fine after the fact. I’ve not been able to find him since then.”

Igneous turned to look at Hobbar. Her rocky face became, if possible, less expressive.

“I’m not happy to hear that, Hobbar.”

“Hang on,” said Hobbar, taking a step back and holding up a hand. He didn’t think that Igneous would be the sort to take things out on him, but he’d seen her get violent once and wanted to stay as far away from that as possible. “If it helps, I know that the only person in town who’d know how to activate the city’s defense systems like that would be Creep.”

“Creep?”

“Yeah, Chip Creep. It’s a fake name, I’m not sure what he used to call himself, but everyone in town who knows about him calls him that. He’s some kind of specialized hacker. Every system that Helix’s government abandons or forgets about, he swoops in and figures out how to make it work again. Some people say that he keeps the city running; I think that he just likes to keep old stuff running as a kind of hobby.”

Igneous took a firm step toward Igneous, putting one of her hands on his shoulders before he even realized that she wasn’t leaning against the wall anymore. The heat was on the verge of painful, but not nearly as worrying as Igneous leaning down to look into his eyes.

“Where does he live?”

“I don’t know!” said Hobbar. “But he’s got little places all over town. A lot of the maintenance shafts and tunnels have side rooms, and he uses those as easy access terminals for his own systems.”

“Do you know where some of those terminals are?”

“Yeah, but they’re secured. Lots of trouble to get into one or access them if you do get in, and there’s no knowing if it’ll be one that he’s at.”

“Let me worry about that,” said Igneous, leaning back and finally releasing his shoulder. “Now, how about the question you…”

Igneous paused before coughing and wheezing for a moment. She shook her head and continued.

“How about the question you didn’t answer earlier? Who else knows?”

Hobbar had hoped that the rock woman wouldn’t have caught him giving more information about one question to distract from a lack of information about the second. As it was, he already felt like he’d given away too much about Chip.

“Hard to say for sure,” said Hobbar. “A lot of people are talking about Zack, though not many know much about him. There was a tall, skinny guy from the DMA who showed up, though. Looked a bit like a bug, wearing some sort of robe thing.”

“Might be Vox. Anyone else?”

“Probably. I didn’t keep a list of the names of people who’ve been talking about it. Mostly people like me, probably keeping tabs on it for people like you. I’d heard, though, that there was a lot of damage done to a medical office earlier today. Zack might’ve been involved, but I couldn’t say for sure.”

“I see. You’re sure that there’s no one else, then?”

Hobbar thought about the Phantom Matador. But technically he’d only told the Matador about Carmen Shift, not Zack Gamma.

“No one I know about, at least,” said Hobbar. “I’m not the only eyes and ears in town, you know.”

“Right,” said Igneous. “But you’re good at it. I also had a partner in town before you called me, checking a lead. Means she’s doing her job well to stay off the radar. This Chip Creep person sounds like he’d have eyes in a lot of places. That’d be a lot of informtion for sale, yes?”

“As far as I know, that’s his primary means of income.”

“Typical. Now be honest, crinlian: do you know if he works with Murk?”

“You know about Murk?”

“We’ve met,” she said. The glow in her eyes flashed. “As one of the most notable fellow Pyrhians on the planet, I’ve taken an interest. Plus I work at the DMA. About half of us are evenly divided between helping people like him and eliminating people like him. Since he’s based out of Helix, that puts him right on our doorstep.”

“Well, you’re right. Chip sells data to any buyer, but from what I can tell the primary customer is always Murk.”

“So even if Murk isn’t involved in Zack going missing, he’d have been told about Zack’s presence. Grab your things, Crinlian. You’re taking me to Murk, and don’t even pretend for a moment that someone like you doesn’t know the places that someone like him would call home.”

“Okay,” said Hobbar. “But I stay out of sight. If someone sees me showing you one of Murk’s major stations, that’s the end for me. It’ll be the end for you, too.”

“Don’t bet on it,” said Igneous.

Episode 21: Thrown to the Underjungles

Zack wrinkled his nose. The oubliette’s circular entrance allowed a fetid odor to escape, distracting even the two guards standing on either side of the chair. Zack had smelled sewers before and expected something similar when Murk’s men had taken him from the office where Murk woke him up to the chamber with this pit, but this odor was unexpectedly different. It was infused with something like the smell of rotting vegetation and fermented nectars.

“If you’re trying to start a flower shop, I think your stock’s gone bad. Location’s not great either. It lacks that Alpha Street charm.”

“Compared to the cultures of Veskid, it lacks a great deal,” said Murk. “But compared to the subterranean jungles of Ravelar, I think you’ll find that I did a fine job recreating the environment.”

“Ravelar? The moon in orbit around Skyrrin?”

“Has your memory cleared, then?”

“No. I went to Ravelar for a recent case, but I stayed in the cities, doing light espionage work for a monastery with a grudge against another. I never explored any subterranean jungles while I was there, and I certainly never met you. I’ve been hit in the head a lot the last few days, but I’m positive it’s nothing that would cause a memory lapse like you’re talking about.”

“A pity,” said Murk. He waved a watery pseudohand and the two men on either side of Zack grabbed his chair and pushed it forward.

Zack yelped, falling into the dark chamber below. He could see that it was only a ten foot drop, but he knew that an incorrect fall from even that short distance could be fatal if he hit the ground improperly. The chair he was bound to restricted his movement, but he twisted his shoulder to try and roll with the fall.

A dizzying moment later and his side collided with the surprisingly soft, peaty mud at the bottom of the oubliette. He had an instant of fear when he realized that he wasn’t landing how he wanted to land at all, but the ground was so much softer than expected. His shoulder ached from the impact, but he realized that the chair’s arm was loose. He looked up at Murk through the hole in the ceiling. Murk flowed into the chamber, suspending his face within the prison.

“Welcome to one of the deeper, intentionally forgotten secrets of a more barbaric period of galactic history,” said Murk. “The construction of the Super Cities was not without its uncivilized minds, those who felt it appropriate to take cues from unwholesome eras. Had Helix become the space-faring behemoth it was intended to be, this room would undoubtedly have become the final resting place of many enemies of the state, a place to dump criminals and simply forget about them. Or perhaps the jailers who built it had nobler intentions… perhaps it really was just meant as a form of solitary confinement, a tiny room for prisoners to fight off rats without any other company for days or weeks at a time in the hopes that they would have better manners when they were ultimately allowed to join the other prisoners again.”

“I’ve got a feeling it’s the first one that you’ve got in mind for me,” said Zack.

“Not at all,” said Murk. “I have no intention of forgetting about you. And I’ve also not developed any plans to make you be alone for so long. You probably can’t see it from where you are right now, but I’ve removed a portion of the wall behind you. What was once a tiny, vertical cell is now just the entrance to a much, much larger chamber. As I told you, I spent quite a bit of time recreating Ravelar’s jungles. The ecosystem was tricky to recreate in an artificial cave, but I managed. And that jungle has an old friend of yours.”

“I doubt that.”

“You may claim that you don’t remember our meeting on Ravelar, but know that there is a poetic justice to this end,” said Murk. “it won’t be long before you encounter the little Lusca Vine. Grown from the spores of the same one that you arranged to deploy upon my operations on Ravelar. I’m leaving you with a light source, if you wish to see your doom coming. But know that Lusca is attracted to the light. There’s not much of it down there, and it usually means that she has a meal.”

Murk flowed back, fully departing the oubliette. One of the guards tossed a lumisphere into the hole. Zack watched it land, naturally unlit, into the mud scant feet from his face. The hole’s entrance irised shut, hissing into place and sealing. Zack shook his aching shoulder and rattled the loose arm of the chair between himself and the floor. He knew that rolling the chair (and himself) over might make it possible to break the chair less painfully, but he also knew that he didn’t want to lose track of where the lumisphere had fallen in the darkness.

Gradually he felt the damage on the chair increase. He also discovered inefficiently tied segments of the rope holding him to the chair, most notably near his right ankle and right arm. The rope holding his left arm in place would gradually fail in time as well thanks to the broken chair arm no longer acting as a solid anchoring point.

While Zack was capable when it came to escape artistry, he knew very well that most of what he had was theoretical knowledge rather than practical experience. He made progress, but felt like he was moving much slower than he would like. He didn’t know what a ‘Lusca Vine’ was, but with every moment that passed he imagined the ropes binding him being joined by a vine composed of alien vegetable matter.

With a triumphant shout (mixed with more than a little pain from jerking his shoulder suddenly), Zack finally managed to break the arm’s chair. He gasped at the unintentional noise, but celebrated by lifting the left side of his face out of the mud. The rest of the ropes easily fell away as he untangled himself from the chair’s wreckage.

He took a moment to take stock. No pistols, forms of identification or hard currency. He had his hat, but without a device capable of connecting to a network the hat would be useless, assuming that any networks would be active this far down. And somewhere in front of him was a lumisphere.

Zack had a good memory and reasonable spatial visualization skills, as did any who lasted long in his line of work, but the circumstances still made it a challenge. Shaking himself free from a chair while lying in two-inch deep mud without any light altered his perceptions just enough to make him worried. If it had fallen much further from him, he might have wasted hours fruitlessly searching. Fortunately, one of his hands eventually touched on a round, smooth object that was out of place in the muggy prison cell.

He held it up and squeezed it gently. The sphere began to emit a gentle, white light from somewhere within, a dim light made almost painful due to the amount of time already spent in the darkness. After his eyes adjusted, Zack squeezed it again and saw the brightness increase. Another squeeze demonstrated the surprisingly bright third setting, followed by the fourth squeeze plunging the chamber back into darkness. Three settings. Zack knew that some of the higher end models were psychoreceptive and designed to always provide exactly the degree of brightness desired by the user, but Murk had clearly chosen not to waste that kind of expense on him.

Zack considered activating the lumisphere’s brightest setting before he remembered Murk’s warning that the ‘Lusca Vine’ would be attracted to a light source. He settled for the dimmest setting and found a hole in the wall, inexpertly carved out with blaster fire. Zack approached and stepped through.

A surprisingly large cavern existed on the other side, revealing the abandoned internal sectors of Helix. Likely intended as a chamber for residents to have an open “park” area while Helix blasted through the void of space, or possibly as a future extension of the dungeons to build more cells, Murk had obviously spent a great deal of time making it appear wilder and less controlled than before. Giant trees somehow stretched to the roof of the chamber, making Zack wonder just where the roots were going. The mud was an inch deeper here than it had been in the oubliette, and the distant buzzing of insects could be heard. Vines and bushes were scattered about, and the humidity hit him like a wall. But what Zack noticed more than anything was the smell.

The odor of overripe vegetation was even more apparent than it had been in the cell, but the more fragrant scents of alien flowers and mysterious pollens were almost overpowering. Mixed with the oppressive humidity, the scent of the jungle stopped feeling like a generic wilderness scent, but became something very specific and unforgettable, so unforgettable that it triggered a memory in Zack’s mind.

A wave of deja vu rolled over him as the aromatic sensation fired familiar neurons in his head. The underjungles of Ravelar were imprinted in his memories somewhere, and there was something important that had happened here. Or there, rather. He didn’t know what the sensation meant, but he knew one thing.

“I’ve been here before.”

Episode 20: Awake at Alpha Street

Carmen opened her eyes, slowly working through a dull throbbing in her skull. It was unpleasant, but she’d had worse hangovers in recent memory and was able to slowly push her way through it. The light wasn’t causing her headache to get worse, fortunately.

She was sitting on an uncomfortable rolling chair in what looked like an empty hangar. She shakily got to her feet, causing the chair’s wheels to emit a loud squeak. She winced at the noise and decided that she should give herself a few minutes to let her mind get back on track.

The environment was eerie and still. The lack of a ship or car in the small hangar gave it the expectant emptiness of deprived purpose while the lack of dust or disrepair made her feel like someone might walk in at any moment and ask why she was there. She wasn’t exactly sure why.

She approached the exit, opened the door, and gave her eyes a few moments to adjust to the (fortunately not too painful) brighter light outside. She saw an upscale, though old fashioned, walkway along a street. Her side of the street had small hangar spaces, while the opposite side featured signs that advertised restaurants or small gift shops. A holographic sign floated nearby, saying that this was Alpha Street.

Carmen remembered Helix, Zack’s checkup gone wrong, the failed attempt to fly away, and the elevator. She ran back into the hangar to look for any sign of Zack, but the space was empty except for the unpleasant chair. She found the hangar’s control panel in the wall by the door, and opened the only other exit to the room, the massive gate that allowed cars or small ships in or out.

The gate opened onto a scenic view of the nearby Veskid City at dusk. Carmen had hoped that there would be a lengthy flight tunnel which might contain a maintenance door, or something that would indicate a direction that she could look for Zack, but the drop from the hangar gate was instantaneous, blocked only by the faint blue hint of the energy field that prevented strong winds from blowing in.

She ran back out and saw Alpha Street. Zack was missing. If they’d been lied to, if Gamma had just been abducted by the DMA then he was already dead. If they hadn’t been lied to, Zack might still be somewhere in Helix. Someone didn’t want her to know where Zack was, though. She needed to find out why, and to find out where Zack went.

More importantly, she needed to figure out where to even begin looking.
***
“Wake up, Mister Gamma.”

Zack’s head pounded. He wasn’t sure who was speaking to him, or why the speaker’s voice wavered and rippled so much, but the the soothing tone didn’t do anything to make his head hurt less. A few more minutes would be perfect.

“I know you can hear me, Gamma. The poison’s effect does not last this long. I can understand a desire to sleep longer with the days you’ve been having recently, but we don’t truly have time for you to recuperate. At least, you don’t.”

Zack managed to get an eye open. He automatically went through the motion of rolling out of a bed, but found himself restrained. He thought more about where he was, and realized he was in a chair. In a very dark room.

Everything rushed back to him. So he’d been caught by the DMA after all. The people in the elevator had lied to him. The single light in the center of the room cast shadows that obscured the room’s edges, including the desk in front of him. He focused his eyes and saw a silhouette behind the desk.

“Who are you? Where’s Carmen?”

“Don’t concern yourself with Miss Shift… she’s been released into Helix, as missing celebrities bring more unwanted attention than missing detectives, especially with her impending races and your socially accepted fate of dying alone in a back alley. But your ignorance wounds me, Zack. After all that time we spent together, I would think my voice alone would give me away.”

“Good point. You sound like someone fitted for a pair of cement shoes who got dropped off in a wishing well. Not exactly the sort of voice you forget.”

“I see. Your predictable view of the people around you continues to be as out of date as your hat.”

“My hat’s fantastic,” said Zack. “Just wait for forest green to come back in style again, and another five years or so’ll make this look a classic. Just you wait and see.”

“Aheh… yes, I will. A pity that you won’t be around to benefit from such a poor choice in fedora. You may not remember me, but I can assure you that this last meeting of ours will be the final thing you ever remember.”

Zack searched his mind for any memory of this person. Perhaps they worked in a different department? One he’d worked with when he first joined, but not since?

“Look, if you want the DMA bounty, just finish me off and claim it. Congrats. You beat Fletch, and that’s saying something. She practically had me earlier today.”

“Oh? I hadn’t heard that the greatest assassin of the Desperate Measures Agency was in Helix. That’s… distressing on some level. Regardless, I do take pleasure in being the one to see you breathe your last, but I’m not with your beloved agency of thieves and murderers. Your death will be personal.”

“Okay, I give up. Who are you? If you don’t want the bounty, and you’re not a member of the DMA, then why do you want me dead?”

“This borders on insulting,” said the shadow. It stepped forward, though “stepped” was hardly the correct word. Its form seemed to flow and surge, most of its mass gently rolling over the desk while the remainder slid beneath, both portions merging with each other as the entity drew nearer.

Zack convulsed at the sight, even though it told him that the creature was liquid or colloidal in some form. He guessed Pyrhian even before he could see the creature properly in the light. It was dark blue, darker than most Pyrhian water people. There seemed to be an inky quality deep within it. It chose a human-like face with two arms and three pillar-like legs, likely to give it extra stability if needed. Zack exhaled once the creature was fully visible.

“That’s surprising,” said Zack. “I wasn’t expecting… anything like that.”

“I’m sure you recognize me now?”

Zack looked over the creature, baffled.

“No,” he said. “No, I’m sorry. Look, you’re… obviously a very memorable person. At least, for a human you would be. Pyrhians aren’t exactly common. Did I know you before your condensation? If I saw you premetamorphosis then maybe that’s why I don’t recognize you.”

“No,” said the creature, stepping forward. It covered ground quickly, with its three, loping legs stretching to cross the small distance with alarming speed. “We met when I was like this. We met, and after what you did I made sure that you would remember to stay away from me. I warned you not to come to Helix ever again. And you didn’t listen.”

“Buddy, I think you’ve got the wrong guy,” said Zack. “I’ve never seen you before in my life. I’ve never heard your voice before. I don’t remember ever meeting anyone like you, and I’ve definitely never been told to stay away from Helix. Whoever you think I am and whatever you think I did, you’re lookin’ for someone else.”

A look of genuine confusion crossed the Pyrhians face.

“How can you forget this? I refuse to believe that my contribution to your personal history would be so mundane as to be forgettable. And it’s simply insulting to think that I, Murk, would make such a gross mistake in identifying you.”

“Murk… wait, I know that name. You’re the one who…”

Zack thought about what he was going to say, carefully putting it all into place.

“Oh?” said Murk. “Has your memory been jogged?”

“No,” said Zack. “I mean, maybe. You’re allegedly responsible for a number of smuggling operations in Veskid City. Some people thought you might be based in Helix. Are you that Murk? Whether or not the reports are true, mind you, I’m not interested in that…”

“Of course I’m that Murk. You know very well the kinds of businesses that I run.”

“No, I don’t,” said Zack. “I just work with people at the DMA. Your name comes up sometimes.”

“Playing dumb doesn’t suit you, Gamma. Instead, let’s see how you fare at playing dead.”

Episode 19: Payouts And Take Backs

Zack looked over his shoulder when Carmen entered, letting his gaze leave the Pyrhian and two Humans as they recovered. Carmen saw Zack in open view and exasperatedly pointed toward the maintenance panel.

“I appreciate the thought,” said Zack, “but I wanted to get a good look at who you were dealing with out there. Plus I don’t do well in cramped spaces. Nice work on the rock man out there.”

“It wouldn’t have been that easy if he’d known I could do it,” said Carmen. “Fast movement, application of strength, and the right attitude can do a lot for shaking off my rock control. Some Pyrhians help out for training rookies in the minor leagues, but self defense isn’t usually on the books. Did you hear me talking to the last guy standing out there? He says they’re not with the DMA.”

“Yeah, and I don’t like it,” said Zack, turning back to look out the window. “I’m not sure why someone would go to this trouble to talk to me if the DMA wasn’t involved.”

“You think their boss is lying?”

“I think their boss is some sort of problem,” said Zack. “Maybe not a bigger one than the bounty on my head, but possibly a more immediate one. Also, just because they’re not with the DMA now doesn’t mean that they won’t be interested in getting that bounty later.”

“My vote’s for going out there and going with them in the elevator,” said Carmen. “We go back and say that we’ll go with them. Take the elevator up to whatever floor they’re taking us to, keep our eyes open for any way out, and as soon as we see one we rush ’em, speed past and find our way back to the streets of Helix.”

“It’s risky,” said Zack. “It puts us in the middle of a lot of people who’ll have guns ready for blazing.”

“In the middle of a crowd, the confusion’ll keep us safe if they’re not expecting it,” said Carmen. “Do you think they’ll risk shooting each other?”

“Depends how much they like each other, and how mean their boss is,” said Zack. “Don’t underestimate how dirty people can get when they play this kind of game. If what they wanna talk about is important enough, the right sadist with a gun might take down everyone else to make sure that we don’t get away. And even if they’re easy-going, friendly armed goons, once we get away from them they’ll be able to shoot us without worrying about it as soon as we’re not in the middle of them anymore. Plus your plan assumes that there’ll be a lot of guards. There might only be three or four.”

“Which we could take!” said Carmen. “And don’t worry about the getaway giving them a better shot at us, that’s why we wait for our opening.”

“Assuming a good opening exists,” said Zack. “Your plan takes all the kinds of risks that extraction jobs aren’t supposed to take.”

“Right, what was I thinking?” said Carmen. “I should’ve totally taken the risk-free option for getting you out of here. I might’ve missed something here, though, so catch me up to speed. What perfectly safe plan did you have in mind? Go ahead, lay it on me.”

***

Zack waved at the two humans and the rock man as he stepped out of Carmen’s car. The two humans nodded curtly; the Pyrhian remained still as a statue, keeping an eye on Carmen as she came into view.

“It’s not every day people like me so much that they activate a city’s supposedly defunct tractor beams just to keep me from leaving. Carmen tells me that your boss is looking for me. Who’s your boss?”

“Someone who likes secrets,” said the rock man, finally taking his gaze off of Carmen. “Someone who likes privacy. If he wants you to know who he is, he’ll tell you when you see him.”

“Well, let’s not keep him waiting,” said Zack. He stepped through them and into the elevator. Carmen and the other two humans followed.

“Not joining us?” Carmen asked the Pyrhian.

“We didn’t know you were petrakinetic,” he said. “Our boss must not’ve known who Mister Gamma was travelling with when the car activated. If it’s all the same, my friends would feel safer if there wasn’t a chance that you could bludgeon them to death with me in the enclosed space. I’ll catch the next one.”

The doors slid shut and the elevator began rising, Carmen adjusting to the shift in inertia more easily than the other three. She also felt the elevator moving at an unusual angle, probably due to Helix’s strange architecture. Zack’s head snapped to the ceiling.

“You feel that too, huh?” asked Carmen.

“I smell it,” said Zack.

“What?”

“What’s wrong with the air in here,” Zack said to one of the guards. The guard smiled.

“Gas,” he said. “Completely harmless, don’t worry.”

Zack coughed and put his arm over his face. He pulled one of his Purcellian Striker Pistols out of its holster and lowered it at one of the guards.

“Turn it off!” he said.

“I can’t,” said the guard, backing up and raising his hands. “It’s out of our control.”

“An old security feature,” said the other. “We’ll all be knocked out by the time we get to the right floor. We’ll be taken to sleep it off, and you’ll go straight to your meeting with the boss, Mister Gamma. Couldn’t risk you getting lost on the way.”

Carmen punched the second guard, knocking him into the far wall. The first guard pulled out his pistol and aimed it at her. Zack noticed the unsteady, wavering way that the guard aimed the weapon and took a chance and grabbed his gun arm, holding it up toward the ceiling before the man could fire. This did nothing to stop the blast.

The beam of energy collided with the ceiling, rebounding off the reflective metal even as it caused the ceiling to rupture. The concussive force of the blast knocked the elevator’s passengers onto the floor with an accompanying flash of light. Zack looked up and saw the angled shaft above the elevator through the narrow hole. A small pump perched on the top of the elevator, just barely visible through the damage; the pump had a cannister connected to it, with a label in a language that Zack couldn’t identify.

Zack saw a crack in the cannister at a point where the twisted roof of the elevator had collided with it. A rapid jet of gas was shooting from the cannister into the elevator, much faster and noisier than the pump had been administering it. Zack’s vision darkened quickly as he slowly tried to raise his pistol toward the cannister. Just before he could pull the trigger, everything went black.

Much earlier, on another world…

Azar handed the electrowrit to Maul, the alien who had joined two humans in attempting to mug him just two weeks earlier. Maul looked at the number written on the sheet and Azar could see the gratitude behind Maul’s tough facade. The sheet could be electronically transferred, stored at nearly any bank, or cashed in for the amount written upon it, and the electronic cells woven into its paper could be easily tracked if it somehow went missing between Azar’s hand and Maul’s financial institution of choice. Even better, the destruction of such a paper before it benefited the bearer could be easily tracked, meaning that the only thing between Maul and the money was however long it took him to get to the bank.

“You’re sure about me taking off early today?” asked Maul.

“Absolutely,” said Azar. “Stay too late, and you won’t be able to cash that until tomorrow. You’ve earned a weekend with that money. I can manage an extra hour.”

Maul smiled appreciatively, a look which Azar was still trying to process. Maul’s multitude of teeth and the mane-like tufts of fur made him look like a snarling lion when he was happy. The toothy grin left with him, though, and Azar felt good about his weekend.

The other two had left earlier that morning after Azar revealed that they wouldn’t be needed for the full day. In truth, Azar didn’t need them at all; the tasks he was having them perform were mundane. He had promised them work, however, and he was good to his word. A small fee to an investigation firm had been enough to covertly track down everywhere that the three had been employed before, information that Azar used to ensure that what he paid them went beyond fair; he wanted their salary to be bigger than anything they’d ever received. Each of them had big plans, or at least things that they’d like to be able to do some day; Azar made each of them promise to pursue those dreams with his funds.

He still hadn’t determined what to do about his residence. In the two weeks since he’d become wealthier than he’d truly believed possible, he had done little. The interest coming from the coin in the savings account would be more than enough to live on from here, even living every day as extravagantly as he could. Still, he’d heard many tales of those who had been blessed with money only to have it vanish in under a year through mismanagement and he was determined to keep a handle on those issues. He was thinking about a new location, however; he’d always known that he lived in a rougher part of the city, but he was only just beginning to notice how many dangerous people seemed to walk about it.

There was a knock at his door. He hadn’t had unexpected company for years. He looked through the peephole on the door and saw a smiling human wearing a suit. He undid most of the door’s security features, and opened it slowly.

“Hello? Can I help you?”

“Hello!” said the man. “My name is Carlton Mayfair, and I’m here to represent BristleCorp. May I come in?”

Azar froze. He recognized BristleCorp’s name. He’d worked for many different companies over the decades, but it was always through his early agreements with BristleCorp. He could see the pine tree logo on the man’s briefcase now, the bristlecone pine from which the company took its name. Azar swallowed and waved the man in.

Carlton entered and quickly looked over the apartment.

“Very nice place,” he said. “I imagine you’ve been looking for something a little bigger now that you’ve received your payout?”

“I’ve… considered it,” Azar said. There was the faintest tone of condescension behind the man’s words. Why wouldn’t someone want to live in a place like this? It was a fine apartment. “I may stay here. It’s a good neighborhood.”

“I’m sure it is,” said Carlton. “And speaking of your payout, that’s what I came here to discuss. I’m happy that everything’s worked out for you so well. I’m sorry to report that BristleCorp is requesting some of those funds back.”

“Why?” asked Azar. “I did everything right, didn’t I? I was promised that amount, and I was paid what I was due.”

“Yes, you were,” said the man. “The issue is that your work came through a rather unexpected sequence of coincidences, and the offer was made with certain assumptions in mind. It was never expected that someone would be able to put in over forty years of this sort of work. That’s part of why the hazard pay values were so high.”

“That, plus the work was dangerous,” said Azar. “More than a few of my friends lost limbs… or lives… working for you. Mining radioactive nebulae, welding those ships in a hard vacuum… we did it all for you. And we did it under the program the program that BristleCorp set up. And to my knowledge, that program never changed, even after the original research project concluded.”

“No, it didn’t change,” said Carlton. “But it should have. It was forgotten. The promise of a Virellium Coin at conclusion was ludicrous, and was carefully weighed against actuarial tables. And the investment opportunities were there to benefit those who had to leave the program early from taking injuries on the job, they weren’t intended for those who completed the entire program.”

“Now, look, the payout of three coins of Virellium Force Energy was promised from the start to anyone in the program. I double checked every five years that the plans were still in effect, and I was told every time that it still applied to me.”

“Yes, it did,” said Carlton. “But to be blunt… you were supposed to be dead. The hazard pay was high, but the danger was higher. No actuarial tables anticipated anyone making it beyond the first twenty years, and by the end your work was for a project that was no longer the company’s focus.”

“If you didn’t want to pay it, you shouldn’t have made the offer,” said Azar.

“My employers didn’t make that offer,” said Carlton. “Earlier leadership of BristleCorp and other corporations in the BristleCorp family made the offer. The company’s direction has changed in that time, and it will put us in financial difficulty if you retain ownership of the entirety of those funds.”

“You’ll get by,” said Azar.

“Yes, but at great cost,” said Carlton. “Many will lose benefits. Certain branches of the company may stop existing. Now, I’m not here to ask you to return all the money we’ve given you. What I’m here to ask is for a portion. You would retain twenty-one hundredths of one of those coins, more than enough to live comfortably for the rest of your life.”

“Are you sure about that?” asked Azar. “If your actuarial tables are wrong again, I might wind up in the poor house.”

“That’s not… with propper planning, you can still be one of the richest people on this planet and never have to worry about money again.”

“Look, Mister Mayfair, I gave your corporation decades of my life. The agreement was that by risking my life on zero-G rigs, terraforming operations, and experimental engineering platforms, I would become wealthy if I survived. And survive I did. The regular payment, the overtime, the degree compensation for the classes I took to understand some of the work we did, the hazard pay… the extra hazard pay… and finally the interest accrued. All three Virellium coins are mine.”

“That’s a matter for debate,” said Carlton, his smile fading. “The argument could be made that the program ceased to exist twenty years ago when the work was first shipped out to a subsidiary.”

“I worked for them, too,” said Azar. “And I was told then that the work would still count. And at each other subsidiary. I checked with BristleCorp, and with the subsidiaries. And I made sure to get it in writing, along with the names of the people I spoke to.”

“The vast majority of those people have retired or left their position by now,” said Mister Mayfair. “A number of them have died. This antiquated offer is not applicable.”

“You should have decided that decades ago before I signed on for the program,” said Azar. “It’s my money. It was signed off on and finalized when you gave it to me. I’m no longer an employee of yours, and I’ve been paid. As such… we have nothing more to discuss.”

“I’m sorry you see it that way,” said Carlton Mayfair. “I’ll likely see you again soon. Have a good day, sir.”

Mister Mayfair left, and Azar closed the door. He knew it couldn’t have been this easy. He knew that they wouldn’t want to pay him. But he’d heard how Mister Mayfair spoke… they weren’t demanding the money yet, they were requesting it. BristleCorp wanted the money, but didn’t automatically think that they could get it. BristleCorp would have lawyers, but they weren’t sure enough of their success to open with the lawsuit. They would probably have the best lawyers that money could buy.

But so would Azar.