Category Archives: Nectra

Episode 162: Sneezing Powder

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

“Hmm?”

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

Silence ensued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are Nectra, yes?”

“Ye-”

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

“What?”

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

“You’re a friend of Zack’s?”

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

Episode 161: Starprey No More

“The Suzerain grants you welcome.”

Zack nodded, trying to avoid the irate looks that Chala was shooting at him. She was translating for the Suzerain during the Sthenite’s closing statements at the conclusion of his trial, but he could tell that Chala had more to say after she was done relaying the official’s words.

“You are free to move between any encampment that recognizes the leadership of the Suzerain, and afforded the protection and hospitality due any of the true people of this world. Welcome, Tzak, Starprey no more.”

The Suzerain finished speaking well before Chala did as she focused on translating, and the crowd of Sthenites reacted to the Suzerain’s statement well before Zack heard it in its entirety, with most hissing, whistling, and chattering excitedly to each other. He took a deep breath as he felt a single threat to his life suddenly nullified. He instantly regretted the inhalation as the moving air in the back of the throat triggered his cough again.

The Suzerain nodded approvingly and turned to leave, as did many of the other Sthenites who had gathered before the stage. Zack watched the majority of the Sthenites depart and quickly jumped to his feet. He didn’t have much time left in the head start that Fletch had granted him, and that was assuming he’d been keeping time correctly and that Fletch would honor her end of the deal.

He walked toward the perimeter of the camp, and moved to its outer wall, nodding to the two massive snakes who began pushing the boulder away from the way out of the camp.

“No! You don’t leave yet, Gamma!”

Zack winced. The boulders weren’t far enough apart yet. He couldn’t dive forward and race into the jungle. He turned around, saw the incoming fist, and nearly avoided Chala’s punch. He fell backward from the impact, tripped over his own shoes, and landed on the ground. Nearby Sthenites who had been chattering excitedly had begun whistling and murmuring nervously at the sight of the two human-Sthenites suddenly engaged in an altercation, and the two by the door paused, wondering if their services were still needed. Zack waved to them to continue as Chala pulled the bow off of her back and aimed it at him.

“How could you, Gamma? What you did there-”

“Look, if you’re worried about me shooting Nectra-”

“No! You didn’t shoot Nectra. I’ve seen that energy burst before.”

“Thought you might’ve,” he said, slowly inching back to his feet and massaging his chin.

“That was the Oborosian Stone!”

“Excuse me?” said Zack.

“The Fact. Don’t tell me you don’t know what it does. This whole thing… this whole set up, you and Nectra were trying to steal it right from under my nose!”

“No!” said Zack. “Look, I’m sorry, but when I figured out what the stone did, I realized-”

“And you thought you could mask it with your guns. The Sthenites might know pistols, but you’d guess they don’t know what yours look like on the different settings.”

“Right,” said Zack. “You’re right about that. But only that. Look, I’m not trying to steal anything. You can have it back, even.”

“I can?”

Chala lowered her bow, but kept rolling her finger around an arrow. Zack watched the weapons carefully.

“Sure!” said Zack. “Look, when I figured out what it did, it was an accident. Tossed me back a few minutes in time, only shifting my position a little. I had… I had literally no idea what was happening until I saw the Sthenites carrying me back to the hut where they were keeping me.”

Chala looked at Zack uncertainly, but still accusingly.

“How did you keep it from the Sthenites? The Phantom Matador had it.”

“I lifted it off him when Nectra and I were moving his body through the jungle. Hid it in my hat, which would be a good hiding place even if it wasn’t teched out. A good smuggler always keeps a false top in those things, at the very least.”

“So you had the Fact… you recognized it while moving the Matador… hid it in your hat where no one thought to look for it… and then figured out it was the Orobosian Stone?”

“Well, I didn’t know it’s name,” said Zack. “I recognized it as a Fact initially and wondered what it was, then I just… look, you hear about time travel in stories all the time, and I was stunned to realize the Fact allowed it, but I couldn’t pass up using it. I wasn’t gonna kill Nectra… and frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t planning on it, the state I’m in. But I sure wasn’t gonna let her kill me either. This was an out.”

“You should have told me, Zack.”

“I couldn’t! You might have thought it was cheating, and you’re a Sthenite.”

“And you don’t think it was cheating?”

“It was guile. I brought the real murderer to justice here, and got the nod of approval from the Suzerain, who just needed an out herself, as you put it. I think the Suzerain, and the weird hallucinated snake-person who talked to me, would both be fine with this.”

Chala shook her head.

“You should’ve told me, Zack. I wasn’t done studying the Orobosian Stone, but I’ve figured out a lot. Plus, a Virellium energy wave is required to kickstart the Fact. If she hadn’t been wielding that scythe of hers when she activated it, I don’t think it would’ve worked for her.”

Zack blinked and rethought the last moments of the trial, considering how high he’d turned the damage on his Purcellian Strikers to help sell the show. He briefly considered Nectra’s last moment being a realization of betrayal and quickly pushed that thought from his mind.

“You’re right,” he said. “I should’ve mentioned something to you. So… fellow Sthenite, will you help me track down Nectra? I left a note for her in my hat, but I don’t know if she’ll find it, and even if she doesn’t a smart assassin like her’ll probably be just outside waiting for us, but no sense making her wait too long.”

“Especially since she’s Starprey.”

“Seriously?”

Zack and Chala stepped into the jungle, and the titanic, cobra-like Sthenites began rolling the boulder back into place.

Episode 160: Blinding Blasters

Captain Ortega instinctively activated his jet pack, and spun to a gentle stop. He shook his head, still not sure what had just happened but feeling like a grenade had detonated to the left of his helmet, which hadn’t been active moments earlier. Alarms rang in the suit’s audio notifier and flashed on the display inside his helmet relaying a substantial amount of damage, damage comparable to being struck by a mag-lev. He turned in the air, frantically looking for his assailant and seeing the titanic figure leaping, nearly filling his vision entirely. Instinct prompted the triggering of his jet pack more than rational thought, and the captain launched higher into the air, narrowly missing Harold Zamona’s enormous fist.

He zipped through the sky in the domed section of the vessel, saw a ring hovering in the air, and instinctively moved toward and through it, keeping his eye on the giant figure below. He issued a diagnostic command for both his suit and his weapon, using both the Astroguard standard commands and the customized diagnostic commands that a friend made shortly after it became clear that Doctor Rogers was taking their frequent altercations personally. While neither diagnostic program indicated any immediate tampering with his equipment (apart from damage comparable to crashing onto a slow Class-C asteroid on his helmet from Zamona’s punch), he decided to leave the processes running in the background.

As the antigrav thrusters built into the rocket pack sent him through the hovering ring, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, rotated to the side, and saw Harold Zamona leaping off a ramp at the top of a nearby hill. The former wrestler sailed through the air, propelled by the power of muscles alone, and just missed a chance to swat Ortega out of the air thanks to the captain’s quick downward dive. Ortega looked up and over his shoulder to see the monstrous figure clinging to the hovering ring up above.

“Don’t think you’ll hide down there,” shouted Zamona. “I know I said there was nowhere in here I couldn’t get to you, but at least make me work for it!”

Ortega eased into an arc that allowed him to skim just over the grass while he examined the environment. He raised the laser blaster, took aim, and pulled the trigger just a moment too late to hit Zamona, who dropped from the ring, fell, and landed in the soft grass, an act that left a noticeable impression in the soil. Ortega slowed, took aim, and fired again, just as Zamona charged at him. The blast of energy connected with the forehead, making Zamona slow down and shake his head, as if momentarily dazed. Ortega’s eyes widened, and he took advantage of the wrestler’s slower speed to zip into the air.

“No offense, but you move and take a hit like some of the meaner dinosaurs. Hiding’s a viable strategy!”

“Like you know how dinosaurs hit…” said Zamona, holding his hand to his head and scanning the skies for his target.

Ortega pushed away a memory of an ill-fated temporal engine that Doctor Rogers had employed and focused on his surroundings. The laser had affected Zamona, but it did little more than daze him, which shouldn’t have been biologically possible based on what he knew of the blaster’s stun setting. Neurological scrambling should occur no matter how much musculature a human (or even human-like alien) possessed, but the wrestler remained standing.

With a final shake of the head, a look of clarity crossed over Zamona’s eyes and his gaze snapped toward Captain Ortega. Ortega quickly flew further away, and adjusted settings on the rifle to increase its lethality.

***

Zack’s aim was off.

Nectra was zipping leaping through the air quickly and not, he noticed, making the mistake of opening her wings to slowly glide, exactly the kind of opening he needed to make her drop. While he didn’t expect the cheering Sthenites to be pacified by simply rendering an opponent unconscious, he’d rather have that case be made with Nectra being the one taking the nap.

He coughed violently, feeling it deep in his chest. It was stabbing now, and if he ever figured out just how he picked it up he was going to dedicate a portion of his increasingly short life to making someone miserable. He looked up just in time to see the shangmere fall from the sky, kick his shoulders with her claw-like feet, and strike his head with her staff.

Zack fell back as Nectra lit on the ground, twirling her weapon as the multicolored blade of Virellium-fueled force energy activated. At first she was backlit by the bright sun hanging in Mandrake’s green sky, making her seem like a moving shadow with a single blue-tinted rainbow of a blade swooping away from her staff, but she thankfully stepped closer and reduced the glare. He couldn’t easily see her face during the fight, but standing closer to her now she looked genuinely morose. She shuffled forward, clutching her staff, but moving with a purpose that Zack never liked to see.

“Y’look like a kid who’s gotta put down a stuffed animal,” he said. He lifted an arm with one of his Strikers, but Nectra was still moving fast; she twirled her staff to knock the weapon out of his hand, and sighed.

“Bye, Zack,” she said, lifting the curved energy blade over her head. “I’m really gonna miss you.”

“Wait,” he said. “Nectra, there’s still a few ways this can go down. We didn’t really have time to talk earlier-”

Nectra’s eyes flashed and she looked up at the ring of Sthenites.

“I think the time for figuring out a quick escape was before we got here. This is… this is probably the worst time to say that you didn’t want to try to run away. They don’t sound reasonable. I don’t… I don’t think what you’re thinking will work. I thought you were going to k-… Zack, is this a trick? Is this-”

“Yes,” he said. “Definitely a trick. But not against you. It’s a longshot, but… look, we’ve got less time than a fish out of orbit. Win or lose, would you like my hat?”

“What?” asked Nectra, blinking a confused blink with her giant, unsettling eyes.

“If I die here, keep it,” he said, taking the green hat off of his head with a practiced roll of the arm. “But I’ve got a feeling I’m gonna need that back. Think you can hold it for me?”

“I… yes?” said Nectra, stepping forward.

Zack tossed the hat to the shangmere, who caught it easily. Nectra held it up, examined it, and carefully put it on her head while the cheers of the Sthenites became confused mutters and started the transition into angry hisses.

“This is weird,” she said. “I couldn’t wear this while flying. This would… not stay up, I’d need a pin or something.”

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

“Hmm?”

A bright flash of light lit up the pit and Zack twirled his remaining pistol, hidden under a fold of his coat. A tangy scent of ionization filtered through the air and mixed with the incredible stench of the superheated mud, breathing new life into the sensation for Zack, now alone in the trial pit of the Sthenites. The crowd looked stunned, but, after a few cautious verbalizations of approval, transitioned into a chorus of cheers and screams. Zack shakily rose to his feet, coughed, and looked up.

First, he saw the Suzerain, crossing her scaly arms and baring fangs approvingly. Then he saw Chala’s angry glare.

Episode 159: Trial By Combat

Zack stepped from the preparation cave and into the arena. A circular, rock-festooned pit made of the world’s ruddy soil, coupled with Mandrake’s oppressive sun, created a humid, radiating heat and a cloying odor that made it difficult for him to breathe. The opposite side of the arena wavered in the heat, but Zack assumed it wouldn’t be an issue for most of the combat. Sthenites slithered around the top of the pit, eagerly looking down to witness the first true trial by combat since their leader became the latest Suzerain.

Nectra clambered in from a preparation cave on the opposite side of the pit. She twirled her staff while looking around, saw Zack, and waved cheerfully. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement, and drew his pistols. Nectra took a step deeper into the arena and almost convulsed when she left the shadow covering her edge of the pit. She waited, allowed her eyes to adjust to the brighter light, and finished moving fully into her starting position.

Zack noted the reaction to the light after the shadow. It was stronger, he thought, than his own reaction to the smell, and while he could get used to the ever-constant mephitis of what amounted to damp, baking mud, the shangmere might have more difficulty with transitions between the shade and light thanks to her larger eyes. He’d need to cross all the way to her side of the pit to take advantage of that fact, though.

The susurrus of hissed conversations above subsided and Zack looked up. The cobra-like Suzerain had crawled into position, flanked by two smaller guards wielding spears. She began speaking, repeating phrases in the Sthenite tongue that Zack couldn’t begin to understand, though a few words were becoming recognizable. She continued speaking and waving her arms meaningfully, but without context Zack’s attention quickly drifted to Nectra, who was alternating between the Suzerain and Zack. She pointed at the Suzerain inquisitively, but Zack shrugged, just as lost as she was.

Whatever she was saying, she was reaching a crescendo, and the rest of the Sthenites were muttering and hissing to themselves, quietly at first but quickly getting louder as their leader did. Within moments, her speech was practically being shouted, and her audience was cheering and chanting with it, some even brandishing weapons at the sky, or the Suzerain, or even, Zack noticed, at the competitors in the arena.

Suddenly, the Suzerain cried out and struck an imposing pose, with her fist raised skyward. The crowd grew tense and the hundreds of serpentine eyes focused on the pit, their collective gaze almost having a weight of its own. Zack and Nectra looked at each other, uncertainly.

On the rim of the pit, resting just opposite the Suzerain, a yellow-scaled Sthenite twirled a bone from a recent meal, and struck the gong that had been quietly erected while Zack and Nectra’s eyes had been focused on the Suzerain. The two competitors jumped at the unexpected sound, a quick motion that prompted the crowd to begin cheering. Taking the cue, Nectra jumped into the air and stretched out her wings while Zack carefully took aim with his Purcellian Striker.

***

Captain Ortega let out a long, low whistle. He had envisioned a smaller room, and possibly a platform surrounded with the traditional electro-tethers, or possibly even archaic ropes depending on Harold Zamona’s wrestling preferences. Instead, the room reminded him of a pack-park, with patches of green grass interspersed with ramps, staircases, and spires on the ground, along with floating rings, hovering catwalks, and even a waterfall suspended high above that fed a gentle pond. Rocket-pack and jet-pack enthusiasts would compete on similar fields of play that weren’t half as detailed.

“Pretty picture, I say,” said Zamona. The captain of the Astroguard tore his eyes away from the room and watched the towering herald of the emperor swagger up next to him.

“I’d say so,” said Ortega. “Not quite what I was expecting.”

“Took some time to get it made. The hovering hydromill gave us problems of all sorts. Believe it or not, it was already partially finished when you went and made a fool of yourself in front of Veskid.”

“Lots of jet-pack joy-riders in your conscripts?”

“Keeps the morale high,” said Zamona. “I think you’ll find there’s nowhere in here that you’ll be able to jet to that I can’t get you, so I still don’t know how you expect to survive.”

“I’ll get by. Really going through with this?”

Zamona snapped a gauntleted finger, an action that produced a surprisingly musical chime, and soldiers bearing the logo of the Dyson Empire approached, one carrying the rocket and the other carrying Ortega’s Astroguard-issued blaster. Ortega nodded and began strapping the rocket to the back of his flight suit, hearing the familiar click of the internal motors that held the hardware in place.

“Thanks,” he said, picking up his rifle and checking it for signs of tampering.

“No problem,” said Zamona. “We’ve already started filming.”

Ortega looked up and around the environment. He couldn’t see any cameras, though he knew that hidden or microscopically small cameras didn’t need to be visible, though he didn’t imagine Zamona wanted to skimp on the spectacle.

“We have?”

“Oh, yes. Since you and I walked in. We have any viewers yet?”

Zamona glanced back at the entrance to the park where a small booth held a soldier who checked a readout and gave a thumbs-up.

“Well… glad we have an audience, then,” said Ortega. He looked to the far wall of the park and saw a massive window that revealed the stars beyond. Veskid was just rolling into view as the ship continued its rotation. He smiled, relieved to finally know exactly where in space he was.

“Same here. I didn’t much care for you trickin’ the poor folks of Veskid into thinkin’ that we had a deal. But since I never back down from a fight or back out of a deal, I wanted to make sure it was the best these people could ask for.”

“So, when do we start?”

Harold Zamona’s massive, boulder-sized fist slammed into the side of Ortega’s head, almost too quickly for his flight-suit’s collision-detection to snap the protective helmet into place. The powerful impact sent Ortega flying, rolling through the air and dropping to the ground at the base of the spire.

“Right now!” shouted Zamona.

Episode 156: Polite Awakenings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you mean pokey?” asked Chala.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” he asked.

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

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

“No, she’s right,” said Zack.

“What? Why?”

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

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

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

“Why?” asked Zack.

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

Episode 150: The Unmasking

“Let’s go, then,” said Nectra, moving to the Phantom Matador’s legs and picking up his shoes.

“Not just yet,” said Zack. “One piece of business first. This guy’s got a bad habit of vanishing right when we think we’ve got him. I say it’s high time that I see what he looks like without his mask.”

“Ooh, yes,” said Nectra, dropping the feet. “Yes, you should do that. He looked friendly to me.”

“Wait, you saw him without a mask?”

“Yeah, back on the asteroids.”

“You were on some asteroids?”

“Oh, yes, following you. It was exciting.”

Zack held his chin, and thought. Asteroids were be a viable way to travel between worlds if you had a method for making sure they had an atmosphere and heat, and more than a little thought put into making sure that changes in direction didn’t fling a person off into space or kill them from the sudden increase in gravity. He thought he could remember a starry night sky on top of a mountain while he climbed a great chain or vine to another mountain top. The mountains were moving? Had he been on an asteroid? He shook his head.

“Great,” said Zack. “You can point him out in a line up. He says that I said I knew who he was… I’m not sure what happened that made me figure it out. Maybe I was bluffing. Either way, time to erase any doubt. Mister Matador, it’s time to figure out who you really are.”

Zack grabbed the mask with his left hand and the hat with his right hand. He took a deep breath and, in one fluid motion, pulled down the mask while pulling off the hat. The man had black hair, which had always been partly visible, and a thin, surprisingly kind face. Zack stared at the figure and sighed.

“Well then,” he said. “Now we can both pull him out of a line up.”

“You mean you don’t know who he is?” said Nectra.

“He looks familiar. Face like that, I’ve probably seen him on a movie poster somewhere.”

“Wait, no,” said Nectra. “No, you seemed so sure that you’d know who he was.”

“Well, the Matador said I’d be sure,” said Zack. “I wanted to believe him… and honestly, old Matty probably wanted to be caught and recognized on some level.”

“Why?”

“Beats me, but they say that about these flamboyant cases. They want attention, to be remembered. Usually, I mean.”

“You think he might be a special case?”

“No such thing as a case that isn’t.”

Nectra looked at the Phantom Matador’s face and shook her head.

“No, I know who he is.”

“You do?” said Zack. “Who?”

“He’s the guy we’re about to drag through miles of jungle so that we can turn him over to the Sthenites.”

Zack stared at the shangmerian assassin until she broke into a nervous smile with her too-wide mouth. Zack caved, shook his head, and smiled.

“You’ve watched too many of humanity’s bad movies, Nectra.”

“Was it good? Was it a good tough line?”

“Not bad for a first attempt,” said Zack, picking up the Matador’s arms. “You’re right, though. Time to get moving. I don’t know why he’s out like this, but we’d better take advantage of it before he wakes up. I think we go… that way, toward those three spongey tree things.”

“Great!” said Nectra, picking up the Matador’s legs. Together they carefully lifted the Matador and started to walk him out of the clearing. As they neared the tree line, Nectra watched the face of the Phantom Matador and cleared her throat.

“Zack, I’m sorry that you don’t know who this is.”

“Don’t worry about. He said I’d already claimed to know who he was, and that’s good enough for me, at least until I figure out why I can’t remember things anymore.”

“Good. So… is this the best way to move an unconscious human?”

“Honestly, it’s not come up for me very often,” said Zack. “We can switch it up after we take our first break.”

Episode 149: Detour From Memory Lane

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

“Well?” she asked.

“I’m thinking.”

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

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

“I don’t believe you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zack stood up straighter.

“Just how good is that reticle of yours?”

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

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

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

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

Fletch frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yellow?”

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

“Something I was thinking earlier, not important.”

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

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

“Six hours?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Episode 147: Heed ‘Em

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

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

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

“You smoke?”

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

“The what?”

Zack stared at Nectra before shaking his head.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

“Well, you seem pretty martially artistic.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our deal did not specify that-”

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

“Yeah,” said Igneous. “Heed ‘em.”

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

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

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

Vox frowned and pushed Rendelac back into his pack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 142: Knowing What To Look For

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

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

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

“Well-”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nectra? We’re on a timetable here.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Who… how-”

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

“But… but they-”

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

Episode 138: Quicksand

Zack Gamma slowly turned his head, feeling the shifting of the sand under and around him. The dense foliage of the jungle surrounding the pit of quicksand gave ample hiding places for The Phantom Matador, and coupled with the psychic ventriloquism in play there was no way to tell where the Matador had gone, or if he had even been anywhere nearby when the rock caused Zack to jump into danger.

Irksome though it was, Zack found his mind racing over exactly what the Soul Survivor predicted. If he relaxed, wouldn’t he float on top of the sand? Or was that just a myth? No, it couldn’t be a myth. Struggling was what made you sink faster, so being calm was the way to go. He’d read reports of dust and sand on some worlds that could make people submerge faster than water, but this quicksand was acting more like the quicksand and mud pits of deserts and jungles more commonly seen across known space. It was probably fed by an underground spring, or from some other water source that was present in the jungle.

It was even possible that if he sank low enough, his feet would touch the bottom and he could wade out. He didn’t want to risk that, though; a little more than a foot of sinking and is nose would be below sand level.

“Anyone out there?” he yelled. “Matty? Mat-Mat? Phantom Matador? …if you don’t like being called Mat, you should give me a name that doesn’t sound so pretentious! …Hello? Anyone?”

“Here! I’m here. Sorry, should I… should I come out now?”

“Nectra? Yeah, yeah, come out.”

The shangmere dropped from the canopy and landed at the edge of the pool, her wings opening at the end of the drop to catch just enough air to allow her stop to be painless. She twirled her staff and held it out for Zack to grab.

“Sorry,” she said. “Sorry, you said you wanted to talk to him yourself, I didn’t know if I should step in if you weren’t ready…”

“No, this is great,” he said. “Perfect timing. I think he’s gone.”

“Can’t you check the tracker?”

Zack looked at his right hand, or rather the sand that obscured his right hand. After a moment’s effort he lifted his hand out of the sand and demonstrated the sand-logged tracker, a motion that caused him to sink a little deeper.

“I might not’ve given it a fair shake, but I assumed it wouldn’t get me very far.”

“Ooh. Yes. You might be right. I’ll take a look at it after we get you out of there. Grab the staff.”

Zack nodded and reached for the proffered staff with his left hand, but Nectra quickly pulled it back.

“Wait! Hang on.”

Zack slowly pulled his hand back while Nectra observed the staff. After a quick perusal she rotated the staff ninety degrees and held the staff out again.

“Okay, now.”

“What’s different now?” he said, reaching his hand out. He touched the base of the staff and an iridescent blade of Virellium force energy emerged from the other end of the staff, cutting up and away from where Nectra thanks to how she was holding it.

“Oh, I see. Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Yeah, I didn’t want to, uh… cut my hand.”

“Right,” said Zack. “So.”

“Sooo…”

“Pull me out?”

“Right!” she said, slowly pulling the staff. Zack felt the quicksand flow around him as Nectra pulled the staff closer and, in just moments, his foot brushed the base of the pit at the edge. He reached for the solid ground, pulled himself out, and crawled onto the comparatively firmer soil, feeling itchy and sandy and damp. He took a few deep breaths, turned over, and looked at the trees overhead. His vision was soon blocked by Nectra, moving into his eyesight, and holding up a finger.

“Could I, uh… take a look at the tracker?”

“Right,” said Zack, handing it to her. “Sorry, forgot about that.”

“No problem,” she said, taking it and dusting off the sand. “It’s probably fine, but I should make sure. It seemed to work pretty well!”

“Yeah,” said Zack. “I couldn’t pin him down, but I could keep him close. If he hadn’t got the drop on me with that boulder, I wouldn’t have fallen into the sand.”

“Hmm… you’re okay, right?”

“Apart from the jungle deathtrap I just avoided?”

“The Phantom Matador said that you were slower… and I’ve heard you cough since you started tracking him, it doesn’t sound good, I think.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just been a little woozy the last day or two. Ol’ Matty’s tryin’ to get in my head. Plus he’s crazy.”

“Heh, yeah, he’s crazy,” said Nectra. “He said a lot of things. Lots of crazy, crazy things.”

She popped open the back of the tracker and started looking over the inner workings of the device while she talked.

“Yeah,” said Zack. “I think he’s feeling desperate. He’s used to being on the run, but he’s not used to it in this kind of place, I think.”

“Right,” said Nectra. “So, he’s getting desperate and he’s a good talker, so he’s saying anything he can think of to stall us.”

“Sure,” said Zack. “Yeah, that’s it.”

“I think we can really just ignore anything he’s saying today, honestly. It’s probably not important.”

“Probably,” said Zack. “And keep that in mind going forward. Even if some of what he said back there was true, he was saying it to rattle me. Maybe to rattle you if he thought you were listening. Telling the truth with the wrong context can be pretty damaging, and I think that’s what he’s goin’ for.”

“Right,” said Nectra. “Good point. So what he said was, uh… yeah.”

“He said I’d panic and not be able to remember what was true about quicksand. And he wasn’t exactly wrong. But let’s wrap up fixing that tracker so that I can show him that he wasn’t exactly right.”