Category Archives: Poison

Episode 167: Rock Beats Pauper

“You sure picked a great place to head, Gamma,” said Chala, cutting through a branch with her machete.

“It looked close,” he said, wheezing as he followed behind. The pain in his chest was growing sharper instead of staying at the dull and hollow pain he’d been managing with. “And it’s… more or less on the way to the field where I landed. Carmen’s gonna need to get me off the planet eventually.”

“If she survived reentry,” Chala said.

“I don’t think she’ll be coming down on an actual asteroid, I think she’s gonna get a ship… Hope she hasn’t already landed, honestly. Hope she’s not too worried about me…”

“I think she’ll have other things to worry about, if you’re anything to go by,” she said. “How’re you holding up back there?”

Zack coughed and waved his hand dismissively. Chala stopped and looked over her shoulder.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I mean… I feel like I’m dying, but apart from that I’ll be good.”

“If you say so,” she said, turning forward again and resuming the walk. “We’re almost there, but between you and me I think that fight with Nectra took a lot out of you, and I’m pretty sure she was holding back.”

Zack didn’t comment, but continued his walk through the ill-defined “trail” that Chala was either discovering or creating as they moved. The scent of the world’s humid air, baking clay, steaming mud, and spongy trees wasn’t comforting. Why was he dying despite being, as far as he could tell, healthy?

Chala reached the edge of a clearing, but paused and held up a hand. The field before her was clear and covered with a crumbly, moss-like vegetation, and a cool wave seemed to be coming from it.

“What?” said Zack.

“We can’t go this way.”

Zack resisted the urge to say that it looked fine to him. He stared into the cool clearing and couldn’t see anything immediately dangerous. He glanced at Chala’s eyes and saw calculated concern, though not immediate worry.

“What’s the problem?”

Suddenly, from the trees above, a figure in a green robe dropped into view between Zack and Chala, an insect-like figure who swept his leg in an arc that immediately dropped Zack to the ground. The trajectory of the leg sweep continued, but Chala was both faster and had more time to react, jumping back and aiming her bow at the figure.

Zack looked up, and stared into the bug-like eyes of Vox Cul-Dar. He jumped up and backward, twisting over Chala’s leg and throwing off her aim before landing. She twisted in place and fired the arrow at the alien, but Vox’s hand was faster, sweeping forward to connect with the projectile and continuing the arc to effectively throw it into a nearby tree.

“The next one goes into you or Gamma,” he said, staring into Chala’s eyes.

“That’s not likely,” she said. “My aim was off that time.”

“Mine wasn’t,” he said, smiling. “And it won’t be. The gift of the tea is fading, but I feel certain of this.”

“Tea?” said Chala, letting the tip of her arrow drop. The humidity seemed to intensify and the heat of the jungle seemed even worse than a moment earlier.

“I wouldn’t push him,” said Zack, shakily massaging his ankle. “I’ve never seen him do that before, but if he can do it once he can do it again.”

“You stay on the ground, Zack,” said Vox. “Until victory is assured, I won’t have you ambling about. You have a talent for misdirection, and opportunities for evasion are always in abundance.”

“Just lucky I guess,” said Zack.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Gamma. These opportunities are everywhere. You just know how to take advantage of them.”

“Get up, Zack,” said Chala, pulling another arrow from her quiver and feeling another wave of heat. “Even sick you were almost a match for Nectra. Between the two of us, odds are still on our side.”

“Before he could get to a knee or pull one of his pistols from his holsters, I would destroy your bow and nullify your ability to assist,” said Vox. “You seem martially sound, so I will do you the honor of not assuming that you would be dead so quickly, but that would follow shortly thereafter.”

“Martially sound?”

“He’s good enough at physical combat that he knows what he’s talkin’ about,” said Zack. “Studied it professionally, and that was before he joined the DMA and got hands-on experience. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, but he probably thinks he’s good enough to gauge how good someone is in a fight before fighting ‘em.”

“I may have overestimated my capabilities before,” he said. “But I’ve got an extra ace in the hole this time.”

Another wave of incredible heat rushed in, heralding the arrival of Igneous, pushing her way through the trees that singed at her touch. Her molten eyes glared with stern determination, and her gravelly fists easily cleared the path.

“You were right,” said Igneous. “They came right here. …Hello, Zack.”

Zack looked at the towering figure of Igneous and his heart sank.

“Well then… rock beats PI. We can’t win this, Chala.”

“So, what, you want me to just stand here while you kill Zack?”

“No,” said Igneous. “Vox and I have a deal. Zack lives.”

“For now,” said Vox. “If you wouldn’t mind, now that my reinforcement has arrived, would you help your friend up? We have a bit of a walk to go, and Gamma looks like he’s in no shape for it. Then again, neither is Igneous with how long it took her to arrive. She should bring up the rear to keep an eye on you two.”

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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 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 154: Flight Delay

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

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

“Ice tub? And no, I don’t mind.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much earlier, on another world…

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

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

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

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

“Who wants to know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you saying you will?”

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

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

Zack looked at the coin and gulped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.”

The Azureback Encounter

“We will miss you, Sky-Carrion, but wish you well tonight as you depart,” said Weshar, repeating the words that the Chief Healer could not, by tradition, speak to people from other worlds. The Chief Healer nodded her head approvingly as Weshar intoned the rehearsed words. Vox Cul-Dar stood, bandaged and bruised but able, with Rendelac in the pack that he wore on his back. His robes had been damaged in the explosion that led to his designation as Sky-Carrion, but he had been able to clean them in exchange for his own information, information from the Rhythnian Boutique’s catalog that he was, in effect, trading back to the tribe that had culturally led to the boutique’s founding. Much of his knowledge came from offworld Sthenites taking advantage of the luxuries of Veskid’s civilization, though, so he wasn’t sure how much would be useful in the long term.

Rendelac chimed and translated Weshar’s words just as Weshar spoke the Chief Healer’s. Vox leaned against a walking stick (easily found from the drier fire wood that the Sthenites collected) and sipped more of the tea that he had come to enjoy. He nodded.

“Tell them that I am grateful for their hospitality, but that I must now leave. There is a great beast of earth and fire even now approaching them, and I would speak to it. It means them no harm, but goodness knows it may mean harm to me.”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “I caution against speaking falsehoods.”

“This is not a falsehood, Rendelac. It is a premonition. My destiny awaits us.”

Rendelac buzzed and spoke to the Azurebacks who had gathered to see his departure. The Chief Healer nodded and gestured to their city’s gates, giving him free passage to leave. The gates were situated next to the river that flowed through the town, a river that was not impeded by the city’s wall by virtue of the gates locked into place, gates that allowed the water to flow through while impeding the progress of potential invaders.

Vox approached the gate and a massive, red and blue-scaled Sthenite pushed the door open for him. A surprised susurrus of hisses and trills issued from the crowd as a mist, thick and roiling, poured through the door. Other Sthenites responded in more reasonable hisses to the worried crowd as Vox stepped into the ankle-high cloud.

“This is unseasonable,” said rendelac. “Fog and mist only emerge from their river at other times of the year, and then it manages to creep up from the portion of the river within the city as well. Reportedly some of the guards on the wall noted the unusual cloud bank that crept up in the late afternoon, and have been puzzled as to why it stopped right at the wall this evening.”

“Thank you for the information,” said Vox, turning to wave at the Sthenites as the door closed again, hurriedly pushed by the same Sthenite who opened it. “It does not change what I know of what is happening, but it does alter the context for how the Sthenites observe it.”

“Please share what you know of the scenario, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “You have been curiously prescient.”

“All will be made clear, once it gets foggier,” said Vox, stepping closer to the river bank where the mist was thicker. “Or perhaps steamier… this fog is warm and humid, not cold and clammy as I expected. It makes sense, though.”

“Does it?”

“To me, at least,” said Vox. “And, I presume, to our associate. Reveal yourself, intruder! You know who I am, and I know who you are, so this continued attempt at clumsy hiding helps neither of us, Igneous.”

Silence crept over the waters until, with a burbling splash, a dull-orange glow rose from the water, still obscured by the thick steam. The figure took steps to the shoreline until Igneous became visible, a towering pillar of orange and red interspersed with blackened, charred husks.

“How did you know it was me?” said Igneous, increasing the heat around Vox. Vox reflexively tried waving the hand with his wooden tea cup in the air to clear the extra humidity.

“The local culture is well worth investigating, Igneous. I take it that you’ve arrived to seek Zack Gamma?”

“You might say that,” said Igneous.

“You wouldn’t be trying to help him, would you?”

“If I was, it would be no business of yours,” said Igneous. “But I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

“You’ve spent too long among the humans to use such an idiom,” said Vox. “Though from the look of you, frying things may soon be your best career option.”

“That’s the main reason I’m here,” said Igneous. “Fletch is here.”

“Yes, I know,” said Vox. “We met… what does that have to do with anything?”

“She… threatened me. She’s carrying a dose of Teles.”

“Is she, now? That surprises me. I never would have taken her for a user.”

“She isn’t. I intended to use half of it.”

“Only half? But… last I checked, even a full dose of Teles would have little to no effect on a Pyrhian without… you mean pre-mixing, though, don’t you?”

“The frozen half of the Teles. It might delay my metamorphosis.”

“I see,” said Vox. “You know, most would just age with dignity rather than turning to such methods.”

“I’ve got business to finish before it happens,” said Igneous. “And I think I’ll need the time the Teles can buy to do that. She stole it from me, threatened me with the fiery half, and told me to stay out of her way, or help her to catch Zack if asked. I want the Teles back.”

“Naturally. As it so happens, I want her to stop getting in my way while hunting Gamma myself… I’ve an inkling of where we might find her, and an inkling of where we might find Gamma thanks to a gift from the Azurebacks. But why were you approaching their city?”

“I figured someone like Gamma would create enough of a stir to cause a commotion at some trace of civilization. This place was close enough to the landing site that word would’ve spread this far, assuming the Sthenites talk to each other.”

“Sensible. Well then… loathe though I am to splitting a bounty, it’s worse to keep someone like Fletch around. What do you say that we work as partners here? First to eliminating Fletch, and then to securing Gamma?”

Igneous’ mouth twisted into a smile, a motion visible now with her altered face.

“Good plan,” she said. “Wish I’d thought of it.”

Episode 135: Falling In

Zack pushed his way through the tree branches and vines, keeping an eye on those places in the vibrant foliage where it seemed likely that someone else had already stepped through them, bending the vegetation out of place. He wasn’t sure what the extent of the Phantom Matador’s powers were, but he was working on the assumption that the Matador couldn’t actually teleport. While not unheard of, such capabilities were well beyond the standard feats of psychic ability. Some suggested that the reason for the rarity was that governments were quick to detect those who were gifted with teleportation and arranged for such people to quietly disappear into various medical experiments or spy training groups, but such people also claimed to have seen things like the Void Pilgrim. Zack, while willing to accept a lot as possible, chose not to believe such theories without actual evidence.

“You’re dedicated. I will concede that much.”

Zack stopped and looked behind him. Was there something in the tree branch? A humanoid figure, obscured by the shadows, was standing overhead. Zack looked at the tracker in his hand, and the direction of the Phantom Matador was ahead of him, not behind.

“Not much else to do,” said Zack. He coughed, and kept following the faint traces of the trail, keeping his eyes on the direction suggested by the tracking device.

“I don’t know what you told Nectra,” said the Phantom Matador, his voice coming from ahead now. “But I don’t approve. If she doesn’t kill you, she returns to a life of imprisonment.”

“I don’t like her tryin’ to bump me off,” said Zack. He wiped his brow and took a long look at the screen of the tracker, just to make sure it was lining up with what he expected.

“I don’t mean to say that you should surrender yourself to her. I am an advocate of escape, after all. But leading her to the mistaken belief that you can offer her another way out of her situation? Your false hope will do more harm than good as she struggles against the faceless corporations and spineless bureaucrats who wield all the power.”

“Did good when I did it before,” Zack said, quietly. He stopped moving forward to catch his breath. The voice sounded like it was coming from overhead and forward. Would this be another trick of psychic ventriloquism, or was the Phantom Matador actually waiting in a tree?

A boulder arced through the underbrush. Zack gasped, stumbled backward, and narrowly avoided the rocky missile as it collided into a tree, sticking into the spongy bark with a dull thud.

“You’re slow,” said the Matador’s voice. “Slower than when we dueled at the hotel.”

“Didn’t you peg me then?” asked Zack, clumsily getting back to his feet.

“I grazed you. And you had two boulders to worry about. Boulders that were moving faster. Either you had a wonderful day then, or you’re having a dark day now.”

“Not as dark as you’re about to have,” said Zack, continuing to follow the trail. He kept his eyes and ears open for more incoming boulders, but it was hard to focus on his surroundings while keeping an eye on the trail and the tracker.

“She’s quite taken with you, you know.”

“Excuse me?” said Zack, grabbing an oddly angled branch that was blocking most of the path and stepping under it.

“Nectra. I believe she’s enamored with you. She hasn’t said so in so many words, but you should hear how she talks about you. It makes your persuasion that you can help her all the more reprehensible, Zack. Tell me, has she ever had a clear chance at ending your life where you were spared only through her hesitation?”

Zack stopped for a moment but shook his head and kept moving.

“She’s not cut out for being an assassin,” said Zack. “That’s not something to be ashamed of.”

“Don’t dodge the evidence, Zack. Like me, she’s a romantic. She’s completely enthralled with humans and human culture. And from what she’s said of you, you’re exactly the kind of tragic figure who fits into melodramatic tales of star-crossed lovers, at least in her eyes. On the run from your previous employers, with a price on your head… and her being sent to murder you as the only way to prove her innocence and gain freedom… you can’t deny the dramatic appeal. You don’t have a disfigured twin who might want to ruin your happiness out of spite, do you?”

“Yeah, but I turned him in for fraud and he’s still got three years on his sentence. Makes visiting the parents awkward, but the bounty was nice.”

“I… can’t tell if you’re serious.”

“Buddy, I think you’re crazy about Nectra. But even if you’re not, it doesn’t really change anything. She’s still a rational… mostly rational scientist. Might be a little loopy from trying to wrap her head around Virellium, but-”

Another rock launched from the brush to his side. Zack jumped back, falling off the trail, and landing in a patch of soil softer than the rest. His feet immediately sank to his ankles and, quickly, to just below his knees. He tried to lift his foot out, but the motion only caused him to sink further. His eyes grew wide as he turned to look at the boulder that landed at his side, seeing it slowly sinking along with him.

“I was right! You’re definitely slower. And not noticing as much from your surroundings as you should. Are you feeling well? I’m sorry, don’t worry about that. I was delighted to find actual quicksand in this jungle. You’re probably struggling to remember everything you’ve heard or read about it, and trying to remember which facts about quicksand are real, and which are just the product of poorly researched adventure movies, and trying to figure out how this alien soil would make it different, if it would make it different at all.”

“Say, buddy, what say you help me out of this?” said Zack, looking around for something he could grab onto to pull himself out of the patch.

“But why would I do that after I spent so long carving away all the spare vines and branches that might have provided a lifeline? All that effort would have been for nothing. And then you’d just try to catch me again.”

“No, no I can… not do that,” said Zack. “I’ll give you a day’s head start. Or… heck, I’d stop trying to catch you entirely, you’ll probably die on this planet anyway.”

“That’s very generous of you, but I think not. Good luck, Zack Gamma. I leave you to your fevered thoughts and your inescapable fate.”

Episode 134: Information, Influence, and Infamy

“This is amazing. It’s only a fraction of what it will be, but it’s amazing. The insight it gives… mustn’t get lost in the moment, though, lest it lead to a migraine.”

Vox took his first sip of the tea. He sat next to a warm fire, and felt the soothing tea roll through him. The apprentice healer, a silver-scaled and blue-feathered Sthenite named Weshar, sat in a coil next to him, nodding knowingly as the village bustled around them. Most ignored them and focused on their work, but a few of the younger ones lingered in curious groups to see the Sky-Carrion and his box that could talk and, more impressively, think.

“What gives insight, Vox Cul-Dar?” asked Rendelac, sitting next to Vox on the log that he had pulled from the pile of firewood to avoid sitting on the ground.

“I knew you would ask that,” said Vox, nodding back to Weshar. “Vox, would you tell our friend how happy I was to learn that I had been found… saved, even… by the Azurebacks.”

Rendelac issued a series of tweets, trills and hisses. Weshar watched the thin, black computer as its eye shifted from green to purple and back again. Rendelac was still not fluent in the Sthenite language, but his understanding was growing. The computer paused mid-hiss, and Weshar watched curiously.

“Theshtreshar,” said Vox. “The word you want is Theshtreshar.”

Rendelac’s eye changed to orange.

“What makes you so certain, Vox Cul-Dar?”

“These are the Azurebacks,” said Vox. “Most of the Sthenites who came to Veskid and created the Rythnian Boutique were Azurebacks, and there was great information about their culture.”

Rendelac’s eye remained orange, but it changed in hue and intensity, becoming darker and softer.

“I had the opportunity to witness much of your research, Vox Cul-Dar.”

“But not all of it.”

“No, but I find it unlikely that you found a comprehensive vocabulary.”

“Believe what you wish, Rendelac,” said Vox. He took another sip of the tea, and raised it in salute to Weshar, who watched the gesture without comprehension. “The boutique offered great insight.”

“Do not confuse knowledge for insight, Vox Cul-Dar. Or information for knowledge.”

“How can one have knowledge without information?”

“They can’t. But they may have lumber without a home, if the lumber has not yet been properly built.”

“That is… one of the classic truths,” said Vox. “It is strange that I forgot.”

“You have not studied the wisdom of Rendelac in quite some time, Vox Cul-Dar. A flaming coal will grow cool if denied oxygen for fuel and the companionship of other coals.”

“Perhaps I made the tea improperly, too. There are mind-affecting effects, after all. Anyway… continue thanking him for me, please. Theshtreshar.”

After a quiet moment where Rendelac’s eye stared at Vox, the eye swiveled back to Weshar and Rendelac began speaking in the local Sthenite tongue. Vox watched the locals work while Rendelac spoke, and waved to a cluster of the young who were watching from nearby. The young feathered serpents seemed to panic and quickly slithered away at being noticed. While not all of the Azurebacks had truly azure backs, there was an overabundance of blues, bluish purples and bluish greens on the scales and feathers of the assembled. Vox wasn’t sure how this compared to other Sthenite groups, but he assumed that there was a difference.

Rendelac stopped speaking and Weshar began hissing and trilling in response.

“He says that we are quite welcome, and he, in turn, thanks us for our, well… ‘explosive injury’ is the best translation, though it is not a literal one… and he hopes that the Cerulean Tea is as soothing as you had hoped.”

“It is,” said Vox, taking another sip. It was warm, and he could feel different parts of his mind pulling into sharper focus while others became murky. It would not be dangerous in such small quantities, but he still wanted to know how it would function in advance.

“So tell me,” he said with a smile, “how does one say Cerulean?”

Rendelac’s eye shifted to blue. Vox wasn’t sure if the blue shift was an emotional response, or if Rendelac had control over the appearance and was choosing to make the color fit the question.

“As you know… the word for Cerulean is Theshtreshar. It’s an unusually specific shade of blue, and unusual that you would ask when you already have this knowledge.”

“I’m exchanging information for insight,” said Vox. “I have plenty of lumber now, and I wish to build my house.”