Category Archives: Operation Eclipse

Episode 163: The Rocketpark Screwjob

Captain Ortega fired the blaster again, but Harold Zamona, moving faster than anything his size should be able to move, jumped behind one of the arena’s ramps. Ortega used his rocket to move into the air, wary of a sudden approach by the former wrestler and worryingly aware by now that his blaster, even on deadly settings, was mostly ineffective. At the strongest settings, his blaster could take out steel walls in seconds, but he wasn’t detecting more than a light singe whenever he successfully fired on Zamona, and the neurological properties of the blaster on the lower settings never did more than daze. He’d encountered other creatures that were effectively immune to his weaponry before, of course… ethereal beings of energy, ancient beasts with thick skin designed for volcanic worlds, and military-grade robots had all shrugged of his blaster… but none seemed so close to a baseline human as Zamona. His primary weapon was simply not effective.

The wrestler appeared overhead, somehow at the top of a ramp that arced higher than Ortega had flown. The captain killed his rocketpack’s engine just enough to start dropping like a stone, reactivated it when he’d fallen far enough to miss Zamona’s initial downward punch, and propelled forward in a graceful arc that took him toward the massive, transparent window that composed most of the wall of the park-like chamber. Ortega activated his reversal thrusters to keep himself from colliding with the transparent wall, and was treated to a spectacular view of Veskid amid the stars just as he heard the sound of Zamona hitting the ground behind him. He looked back and saw the titanic figure standing up from a crouch, and tensed while Zamona took calm, easygoing steps toward him.

“You’re pretty nimble for someone in a beat-up space suit. I can keep this up all day, though. The Dyson Empire’s not eager t’see someone so capable foolishly throwin’ their life away. What say you throw in the towel and tell the folks at home that you’re surrenderin’, and that they should too.”

“Seriously?” said Ortega, smiling. “I’ve got you on the ropes.”

“Funny. I don’t think you’re gonna like how this ends, though. Parents, you might wanna send your kids out of the room if they’re watchin’ this.”

Zamona jumped forward and Ortega rocketed upward. Zamona’s fist connected with the window and a horrible crunching sound cascaded through the room. Ortega held his breath as warning alarms started chiming, but he relaxed when he saw the herald’s fist retract to reveal that the window had crumpled instead of shattered.

“Transparent metal instead of shielded glass!” Ortega shouted.

“Couldn’t tell you.”

“Makes sense for a window that size, it holds up better against air pressure,” Ortega said, touching down on the ground. Zamona raised a confused eyebrow.

“Not flying away? Rethought surrender?”

“Nah,” said Ortega, unlatching the rocket pack from his back. “Just switching weapons. Computer, go to full burn, head for the big guy.”

Ortega swung the pack forward just as the engines turned from red to orange, yellow, blue, and white. The pack rocketed toward a surprised Zamona, slammed into him, and pushed him into the window. The Herald struggled for a second, further increasing the structural damage on the wall behind him, as he reached forward and tried to manipulate the pack.

“Nice try,” he said. “I’ve still got just enough control to not let this thing push me out, though. And it’s just not gonna hit hard enough to hurt me.”

“Don’t need to hurt you,” said Ortega. He pulled the trigger on his blaster and fired, striking the window just over Zamona’s shoulder. Too late, Harold reflexively lifted a massive hand to ward off the blast, not realizing that he wasn’t the target. An orange glow accompanied the increased heat as the transparent wall distorted. Harold looked back.

“Wait-”

The combined force of the rocket pack and the herald’s shoulders took their toll. The diminishing cohesion of the window failed, and the wall ruptured. An intense rush of air defenestrated the former wrestler, and the rocket made sure that he vanished into the void before he could react to what was happening.

Captain Ortega felt the rush of air and reflexively activated the magnetic boots on his spacesuit, a futile action while standing on the grass and soil of the rocket park arena. In a moment he’d lost his footing and been pulled into the emptiness just outside of the ship’s hull.

Advertisements

Episode 152: Circuses

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

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

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

“How?” asked Zamona.

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

“You mean we’re being ignored?”

“Yes, sir. By BristleCorp.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 151: A Truth Recalled

Officer Tacara watched the light show in the night sky above Helix. She’d volunteered for extra shifts ever since the Dyson invasion forces began harassing Veskid’s military which had been completely taken by surprise but had mustered itself well. The explosions of ships in the sky were few enough and nearly all of the debris that might fall from the sky would burn up in either the atmosphere or the protective shield that Helix could generate, but the sight put the city on edge. Keeping her car hovering above the buildings near the highest portions of Beta Street, she was both ready for emergency calls and in a better position to see the battles in the sky when they came near enough, views more impressive than what the news would show if she stayed at home.

With a burst of white noise, her communications channel opened.

“Come in, Tacara.”

“Tacara here. View looking good on Alpha Street, Carlu?”

“It’s stellar. Hey, we just broke up a few people helping themselves to some discounts at some stores that closed early because of the light show. There were some people there outside of the usual suspects. You see anyone running around with special operations gear?”

“Can’t say that I have,” said Tacara. “You’re saying that the Veskid military’s getting in on the looting? In Helix?”

“No, the uniforms were different. They had that half-eye logo from the commercial.”

“You think you saw Dyson troops on the ground?”

“It looked like ‘em.”

“You probably just saw a different logo. Or maybe there are some people in Helix taking the Dyson emblem as a mark to rally behind, or to make them harder to identify later.”

“You think street gangs are getting their hands on military grade special operations gear?”

“No, but I think that between Helix and Veskid City we’ll have scores, literal scores, of lone wolves who’ve all individually acquired that sort of thing.”

“All righty. I’m just tryin’ to make sure justice is done, is all.”

“You’re one of the good ones, Carlu. Stay safe out there.”

Carlu’s end of the line went silent. Tacara looked into the sky and saw three pinprick explosions, like miniature firecrackers popping overhead. She reopened the channel.

“Carlu?”

“Yeah?”

“What was that about justice?”

“Makin’ sure it’s done?”

“Yeah, that.”

“Just seems like we should try to find the guilty parties here. And, hey, it’s probably not this Dyson guy, but if it is…”

“Right,” she said. “Seems unlikely because no ships have landed… be sure to call it in.”

“I did, with the main report.”

“Call it in as its own report. All the details.”

“Why?”

“Something a Pyrhian air man told me. Probably nothing. But… well, the Dyson Empire managed to get their ships into our system without passing through any surrounding territories. If they could move big ships… well…”

“You think they could move individual people down to a planet?”

“I don’t think so, but there’ve been reports of some civilizations cracking that problem. And some individuals like The Soul Survivor, on occasion. Then there’s things like the Void Pilgrim.”

“Heh. Tacara, you believe in the Void Pilgrim? ‘Void Pilgrim yet flies’ and all that?”

“I… no, but I won’t rule it out. Especially if you’re seeing Dyson troops on the ground.”

Episode 145: Document Delivery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Harold Zamona seems to believe that we can.”

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

“I know, sir,” said Dawes.

Mayfair drummed the top of his desk.

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

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

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

“Good luck, sir.”

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

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

Much earlier, on another world…

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

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

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

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

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

“Going down?” asked Zack.

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

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

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

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

“Not a ship?”

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

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

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

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

Episode 136: Interview with an Iceberg

“Don’t stare at his gauntlets.”

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

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

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

The two guards nodded in general agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” said Zamona.

“For showing up here?”

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

“I didn’t exactly do it alone.”

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

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

“Not as many as you think.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No you didn’t.”

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

“Have you found him yet, by the way?”

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

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

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

Much earlier, on another world…

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

“Seems harsh.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Such as?”

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

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

“You’re good at that.”

“At what?”

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

“Fiamme.”

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

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

“Why not change it?”

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

Zamona shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We feel the same way.”

Episode 118: Reverb

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

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

“What?”

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

“Surrender: never,” said Xorn’Tal.

“I like your thinking,” said Carmen.

“Task: doable?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think you’re right,” said Vince.

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

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

“Buddy, neither do you,” said Carmen.

Much earlier, on another world…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Need any help with that?” asked Zack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I had a big lunch. What real plan?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’ve you got in mind?” said Zack.

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 111: Westminster Quarters

The alley was beautiful, dark and cold. Zack stepped through it and looked up at the sky. Stars shone overhead, glimmering with an immediacy that suggested an absence of atmosphere. It looked like the sky of a space station, one large enough to have a city. The alley was perfect, with just the right combination of narrowness and twistiness to be atmospheric but without the cramped quarters that Zack was familiar with from the many times he’d worked in alleys like these. His only complaint was that it was too clean. None of the grime from foot traffic, litter, or good old fashioned air pollution had settled into place, confirming Zack’s suspicion that he was on a space station.

“It isn’t fair to judge every warrior by the same rubric. The strength of some is speed, the strength of others is physicality, the strength of others lies in their venom. You are weaker than most Sthenite warriors, though surprisingly fast for a human. But is speed sufficient? What will your greatest challenge be? Can you clutch victory from death and defeat?”

“Who’s there?” said Zack, looking over his shoulder. The alley was darker now. A familiar set of four notes chimed through the air, notes he always associated with old clocks. He turned toward the voice, reaching into his green trench coat and drawing his Purcellian Striker Pistols.

“You’re sure about this alley, then?”

Zack passed a storefront and paused. Why was the storefront wrong? He looked at it, and saw an analog clock ticking away the seconds next to a digital clock that flashed 12:00:50. It wouldn’t be long until the analog clock caught up to the flashing time.

Another set of notes passed through the air, four notes that seemed to answer the first four. It was strange to hear a break between them. Were they part of the same notes playing, or was there just a delay?

Zack turned left, ignoring the store.

“You’re alone,” said the voice. “You have friends. Have they abandoned you? Betrayed you? Or have you finally reached a place where they can’t save you? Your strength lies in webs of community. Will you finally get in a problem so deep that not even the most generous friends will be able to help you in time? After all, they can’t be everywhere you are all the time. And what sort of stranger would help you out without even knowing who you are?”

Four more notes echoed through the alley.

“You’re not sayin’ anything I’ve not thought about before,” said Zack.

“Then why do you keep going into alleys? You know what they say about people in your kind of work and alleys.”

“Lotsa work to do,” said Zack. “Long way to go yet.”

“There are miles to go before you rest,” said the voice. “And you won’t be able to help everyone you try to help. How can you when you can’t help yourself?”

“Shut up.”

“Did you help Azar?”

Zack winced, and everything went dark.

“That’s incredible. I’ve never seen a mental block like that. I suppose it’s possible for one to form through your own willpower, but it’s unlikely. Do humans possess such technology?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Zack.

“Then tell me about Azar.”

“I don’t know WHO you’re talking about,” said Zack.

Why did the storefront open onto an alley? That was the problem.

Zack turned and walked back to the alley, finding it closer than he expected. The clocks were nearly at the same time. A final set of four notes chimed, finishing the musical phrase, just a few seconds before midnight.

“Midnight is different in your mind,” said the voice. “It’s the turning point of the day in Chala’s mind. But for you… why fifty seconds later?”

“Chimes don’t end at midnight,” said Zack. “They end after midnight. Thirty seconds, a minute maybe, but never right at midnight unless you change the chimes to start before midnight arrives. There’s a clock on Veskid that rings, used to listen to it all the time. I timed it out to fifty seconds. I should go to Earth some day, visit the original.”

The chimes started ringing, announcing the arrival of midnight. Zack opened the door of the store and stepped in.

“Wait, who are you?” said the voice.

“Zack. Or Tzak, if you need me to be a Sthenite.”

A doctor’s office was inside the store, looking out of place after the clocks he’d expected on the storefront. Zeta, the Doctor that helped the asteroid racing federation, waited behind a desk.

“Hello again, Tzak.”

“Hi,” said Zack. “I don’t know what’s happening.”

“I can’t help you,” said Zeta, shaking his head. “No appointment, and no medicine here. Should’ve taken a different route to find medicine.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” said the voice.

“I don’t know what’s happening, but I feel like this is where I should be,” said Zack.

“I’m sorry,” said the voice. “I don’t know why this… this has never happened before, you’re supposed to be alone.”

“I’m not alone,” said Zack.

“No, but I can’t help you,” said Zeta. “I have a little time before my next appointment though, I might be able to administer another brain scan.”

“I don’t need my head examined,” said Zack.

“Right there with ya,” said Nectra, leaning in to Zack’s field of vision from the side.

Something was wrong.

“You’re not here,” said Zack.

“Yes I am,” said Zeta. “Are you okay?”

“I hate to do this to you, this looks important,” said Nectra.

“Stop,” said the voice. “No one is supposed to interfere. This is delicate. It’s meant to be solitary.”

“Hey, you okay?” said Nectra. “Zack, your eyes are… and your voice is weird, too. Snap out of it, okay?”

“Nothing’s wrong with my voice?” asked Zack.

“If you say so,” said Nectra. “But I’ve waited too long. You’re comin’ with me.”

Nectra put her clawed hand on Zack’s arm and suddenly he was in the cave. The Overseer of the trials was gone, and there was no trace of an alley, clocks, or chimes.

“N-” he said, feeling very ill.

“I think the air’s a little weird down here,” said the shangmere, smiling. Zack took a slow step back, but Nectra yanked his arm forward and spun his wrist behind his back.

“This way,” said Nectra. “We’re gettin’ out of the crazy death cave. And then, once we’re both safe and sound away from the flying snake people, I can kill you.”

Episode 101: Dyson’s Delay

“I regret to inform you that The Soul Survivor has escaped our custody.”

Emperor Dyson turned from his workbench, and Zamona was struck by how different he looked. The Emperor, when dressed in his full regalia, acted stuffy, regal, and rarely personable, though often polite. No longer wearing his mask, crown, or robes and wearing his work outfit, he seemed happier, or at least more in place. An understanding smile crept across Dyson’s face, and he shook his head sympathetically.

“That’s a shame, Harry,” he said. “I’d been looking forward to figuring out how he worked. If I could have. Reportedly, some of the Soul Survivor’s technology is a mystery even to him… I doubt that on some level, though. It’s possible all of his upgrades have come through simpler technologies that he finds more accessible, but I expect that he knows, on some level, how it all works together.”

“Do you really think you wouldn’t be able to work it out?” asked Zamona. “We’ve been able to reverse engineer every piece of alien hardware we’ve come across so far. You do have a gift for this, if I may say so.”

“I’ve been lucky,” said Dyson, turning back to the scattered tools on his workbench. “The right insight at the right time… even just living this long. There will always be mysteries outside of our understanding, and it’s possible that The Soul Survivor, through accident or intention, represents some technology that our dedicated team couldn’t unravel. Over the years, his escapades have demonstrated a bizarre talent for denying classification. Which reminds me, what of Captain Ortega?”

“In custody, and cooperative,” said Zamona. “For now, at least. The two Morcalans are not cooperative, and one of them has escaped twice. She’s got an excellent grasp of strategy and combat. Nothing we can’t contain, but it is putting a strain on our local resources.”

“Understood. Do you believe that you will be able to reclaim The Soul Survivor?”

“Maybe,” said Zamona. “He’s missing. We presume that he is with the pilot who had pointed us to the crates that contained the, uh… water cooler parts.”

“Water cooler? Tell me, can you confirm that we ever even had The Soul Survivor captive?”

“I can’t,” said Zamona. “I’d say we didn’t. Unfortunately, the pilot’s vessel has vanished entirely. It was in formation for our assault on the Veskid system, but then it stopped being there. It’s either some sort of advanced cloaking, or a new application for your Virellium Wave technology.”

“Amazing. I want a report on all the details surrounding that disappearance.”

“I’ll arrange that. Shall we continue delaying?”

Dyson picked up a tool on his workbench and slowly turned it in his hand.

“No,” he said. “No, without any possible new insights from The Soul Survivor, delay makes no sense. All communications in and out of the system need to stop. I won’t have our quarry get away.”

“This won’t kill it, you know.”

“I know,” said the Emperor. “But it’ll hurt it. We’ve hurt it before. It’s been dying for a long time now, but it won’t die without a little more effort, and every time we hurt it we get closer. Even if we don’t succeed in our true goal, the Veskid system will make a fine addition to this new empire. Begin the attack.”