Category Archives: Races

Episode 153: Uncooperative Plans

Xorn’Tal’s vision was not as advanced as a human’s, but he still appreciated staring out the window. The shifting stars as The Soul Survivor continued moving the pirated vessel through space were a pleasant distraction from the situation. The humans had a great capacity for complaint, finding new ways to both qualify and quantify how poorly things were going.

“I just want to know WHY it’s locked,” said Carmen. “We left the door to the kitchen propped open. I mean, how long has it been closed? Did Tan get loose?”

“Probably,” said Vince. “We had to move fast, and Xorn’Tal was improvising. No offense, Xorn’Tal.”

Xorn’Tal lifted one of his articulated vines in an imitation of the human gesture of raising a hand to acknowledge a comment when no offense was taken. He continued staring out the window, watching the drifting of the stars.

“Was it closed when he asked me to go to the end of the hallway?” asked Carmen. “I didn’t notice anything… would it be more normal to notice a door you left open being closed, or a door that’s usually closed being open?”

“I… don’t know. Why would I know that?”

“I don’t know, people know things. Maybe you watched a documentary or heard something in a class back in school one day.”

“You seriously think I’ve ever watched a documentary before?”

“You might’ve.”

“Have you?”

“Do special features on movies count? Like, the ones that explain how they made the movie?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve watched those.”

“So you HAVE watched a documentary!” said Carmen.

“I didn’t mean that kind of documentary. I meant, like… nature specials, or things that go into how other things are made.”

“Ship: Nearing,” said Xorn’Tal.

“Yeah, like how ships are m-… wait, what?” said Vince.

“Ship: Nearing,” repeated Xorn’Tal. “Course: non-intercept.”

“You mean we’re going to crash?” said Carmen, walking from the door to the kitchen area and toward the window.

“Likelihood: Negligible,” said Xorn’Tal. “Certainty: Greater: Intentional Piloting.”

“I think you’re right,” said Carmen, looking through the window.

“You mean that it’s not coming to intercept us, but the Soul Survivor’s moving to intercept it?”

“Or at least get close to it,” said Carmen. “Not sure what’s goin’ on between the sides of that polished crystal where his ears should be.”

She stepped from the window and walked to the door, where she began hammering on it insistently.

“Hey, Soul Patch! Let’s talk about the flight plan!”

“I am The Soul Survivor, and I have no information that you need,” said the now-familiar voice from the ship’s communication system.

“What’s the big deal? First you hijack a ship, and then you take it back?”

“Your refusal to allow Tan to return to the bridge has necessitated a change in plans. I will need to take a more direct approach to easily leave this system.”

“So you’re movin’ on to Plan B? That’s what you get for messin’ with the best.”

“That you choose not to aid in my plans and thus become a part of the legacy of The Soul Survivor is your folly, as partaking in my brilliance is a delight. I do not begrudge you your ignorance, but yes, I must move on to plans that require substantially less cooperation from you. Because you three amuse me, I have allowed the oxygen, lights, and gravity to continue running in your hallway. Pound upon that door all you wish; your antics will neither hasten nor delay your eventual fate.”

“You’re not worried that they’ll be able to find you when you get this close to them?” said Vince. “I don’t know much about your technology, but won’t that be a big power… thing? A drain or burst or moving empty space on their sensors or something?”

“You’ve seen too many poorly conceived films, but you are, astoundingly, correct when you say that there is a risk of discovery.”

“You: Anti-Worry?”

“Not as worried as you should be,” said The Soul Survivor. “I can survive and escape from any incarceration to which I am subjected. If they find you… such as through any attempted distractions on your part… I doubt that you will find their captivity as enjoyable as I shall.”

Advertisements

Episode 146: A Private Offer

“Carmen Shift, please move to the far end of the hallway.”

Carmen sat up and looked around, trying to identify the source of the voice. It was a woman’s voice, soft and lilting. Xorn’Tal and Vince were also making themselves comfortable at the door to the bridge, and neither looked like they were speaking. Carmen opened her mouth to speak.

“Don’t. They didn’t hear me.”

“Hmm?”

“Only you can hear me, Carmen Shift. Please move to the far end of the hallway. I must speak with you, and you would do well to not appear to be speaking to yourself.”

Carmen raised an eyebrow but stood. Xorn’Tal seemed to not care, and Vince merely nodded in recognition of the fact that she was moving. A lethargy had settled upon the racers after their failure to find a quick solution to the problem of the door. Carmen walked passed the window that revealed their proximity to Mandrake. She passed a maintenance hatch, a lavatory, and a supply closet before she neared the door to the kitchen.

“That’s far enough,” said the voice.

“Great,” said Carmen, quietly. “So, what’s your mondo mysterioso angle here?”

“Carmen,” said the voice, changing dramatically to a masculine, sonorous tenor. “It is I, the Soul Survivor!”

“Figures,” she said. “I don’t need this. Later.”

“Wait,” said the Soul Survivor. “Don’t leave. I’m going to release you?”

“Great,” said Carmen. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch, apart from my difficulty in locating a suitable drop point for you. The Dyson Empire’s forces have locked down most safe ports and entrances to the system, and I’d rather not take you so far away just to release you. There is a mostly unharassed fueling station at the far reaches of the system, though. I could fly out of my way and leave you there.”

“Seriously? Huh. That’s surprising. Well… thanks. I’ll tell the guys.”

“Do you believe that’s wise?”

“To tell ‘em we’ll be out of this tin can soon? Seems smart to me.”

“Ah. I… have communicated this poorly.”

“Communicated what?”

“Miss Shift, I intend to release you. The other two will stay as my prisoners until I can finally contact someone within your racing federation to pay for them. I believe I may yet profit from this venture.”

“Hey now, you said now catches.”

“This isn’t a catch. You go free, no strings attached. Your friends, though… they must endure here.”

“You really can’t see why that’s a catch?”

“We are debating semantics.”

“No, I’m debating you. You think I’d just leave them?”

“Carmen, you okay?” called Vince from the opposite end of the hall.

“Tan: escaped?” called Xorn’Tal’s translator.

“Your voice carried farther than hoped,” said the Soul Survivor.

“Yeah, it does that when I’m mad,” she said. “No, I’m fine you two. Hey, listen-”

“Carmen-”

“Shut up,” said Carmen, walking back. “The Soul Survivor’s talking to me. Only I can hear it because of… I don’t know, something dumb.”

“I’m bouncing the sound waves so that they only grow audible in your immediate-”

“I said shut up. Basically, the brains of this operation wants to kick me off the ship at some fueling station while leaving you here until he gets his ransom payment.”

“Nice,” said Vince. “Lucky you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not going unless we’re all going.”

“Really?” said Vince, rising to his feet. “Carmen, I think if we can get one of us off this ship, it’s a chance worth taking.”

“I think it’s stupid to split the group like that,” said Carmen. “Thanks for voting to get me out of here, but with all three of us we’ve got a better chance of taking advantage of any surprises the Soul Survivor throws our way.”

“Surprises: Unlikely,” said Xorn’Tal. “Alternative thought: point: valid.”

The Soul Survivor listened to their argument, seething but willing himself to remain logical. If Carmen Shift wouldn’t take his generous offer, then she could stay confined with the other racers despite what his fading sentimentality had to say about it. The past would remain in the past, and the future would involve a greater ransom because of it.

Episode 141: Overclocked

He scanned his robotic body again. Repairs were eighty-four percent complete. He listened to the hostages again. Vince Flashman was starting to explain how this situation was like a movie he’d seen once. He estimated that he could finish his next stage of planning before a new speaker could respond to Flashman.

The Soul Survivor continued calculating the numerous methods of sending a message outside of the system. His “body”, such as it was, sat mostly repaired in the bridge of Tan’s ship, but until it was ready to reboot completely he was content to let his mind ride the circuitry of the ship’s computer itself. Objectively, he knew that there was little difference between his robotic body and a computer’s memory banks, but he never felt that he was truly alive until he returned to the tank-headed android. Having a preference for one piece of hardware… an occasionally inferior piece of hardware at that… was one of the eccentric luxuries that he allowed himself. It was one of the things that made him so charming, after all.

What he didn’t find charming was the surprisingly effective security measures in the ship, and the anti-communication measures established across the system. He had experienced communication breakdowns before, both intentional and accidental, but none of them were this thorough. Generally he could find a quick space where it was possible to bounce his signal, but he was simply not finding it. Similarly, the fact that he couldn’t work around the security feature that required Tan’s eye was infuriating, but he had only himself to blame for that. Verbally explaining his command to Tan while he was in the presence of the racers had kept the one sure-fire method of overwriting the ship’s security out of his grasp. He was growing soft and overconfident, and he wasn’t sure which of these he disliked more.

As far as his sensors could determine, Tan was still alive and mostly well, but confined by Xorn’Tal’s numerous vines. The refrigerator would be a safe enough place for him, but for now that was one benefit that The Soul Survivor lacked. Xorn’Tal’s vine-like abilities surprised him, though they shouldn’t have. The capabilities of the species were well documented. To that end, The Soul Survivor began a search for other warning signs: spores, pollen, seeds, and other unusual quirks that he might not expect due to his tendency to strategize for humans.

A seed was detected. The Soul Survivor examined it and determined its purpose: a possible growth from a Tharsha seed, situated in the ventilation shaft as it was, might shake things loose. Clever…

It was fortunate that aliens usually did not encounter each other before they became civilized enough for space travel, otherwise these surprising abilities would cause them to wipe each other out. The Tharsha Seed could remain where it was for now, though ideally not without some tweaking. In the meantime, he needed to find a way to communicate with the Galaxy beyond the Veskid system, and as long as he didn’t have Tan he couldn’t do that. However, he was willing to bet that one of the Dyson vessels could…

He scanned his robotic body again. Repairs were eighty-six percent complete. He listened to the hostages again. Vince Flashman was wrapping up explaining how this situation was like the movie. Things were progressing quickly.

Episode 137: The Tharsha Seed

Vince Flashman pounded on the door to the tiny bridge of the fighter craft.

“Let us in!”

“For the last time, no!” said the sonorous voice of The Soul Survivor over the loudspeaker.

“How is it possible for this hallway to be lamer than that break room they called a galley?” moaned Carmen, leaning against the opposite wall and staring out the window into the cold, empty void of space beyond. “I mean, seriously, these ships aren’t expected to have many passengers, why’s the door even locked?”

“Nearly three centuries ago is when such seemingly unnecessary locks became customary,” said The Soul Survivor. “After the Mind-Rays of the Rucivarian Star proved capable of turning reasonable passengers into deadly enemies, the-”

“Shut up,” said Carmen, half-heartedly pounding the window. “No one cares!”

“You can stop looking out the window for any passing rocks, Miss Shift,” said The Soul Survivor. “I have a rough estimate for your radius of effect, adjusted for the significant increase gained if the three of you work together with frankly unrealistic coordination. Know that I’m piloting the craft to keep any dangerously sized rocks a minimum of three times that distance away.”

“When we get in there, I call dibs on his voice box.” Said Carmen.

“Even if you could find a way into my demesne-”

“Stop calling it that!”

“-you would need to destroy not a single voice box, but a minimum of twelve interrelated-”

Carmen jumped from the window and pushed her way passed Xorn’Tal, making enough noise and moving far enough that she couldn’t hear the end of The Soul Survivor’s speech. The last hour of hammering on the door to be let into the bridge had done little more than expose them to an endless tirade of speeches and condescending explanations from The Soul Survivor, who apparently couldn’t tell when it was time to shut up.

“If the idiots in the Stone Station Riders can figure out the rules of yelling at someone, why can’t he?”

“Vent: Air?”

Carmen looked over her shoulder. Xorn’Tal had followed her, his vines and fronds taking up most of the cramped corridor when he used them to move. Carmen shook her head.

“Xorn’Tal, look, I keep telling you: air vents are too small for us to use. Movies only make them big enough to crawl through to make it more convenient to the plot. You might be able to get a couple of vines through one, but I don’t think they’d stretch for enough, unless you’ve got a crazy alien growth spurt coming in the next few minutes.”

Xorn’Tal shook.

“Knowledge: known. Vent: Air? Find?”

Carmen tilted her head.

“Why?”

Xorn’Tal lifted a small… hand? Leaf? Flower?… and it opened/bloomed to reveal a tiny seed, much like an acorn.

“What’s that?”

“Seed: Tharsha-Vine. Growth: Explosive.”

Carmen’s eyes flickered from the seed to the door at the end of the corridor and back.

“Is that one of the seeds that took out a space-port last year?”

“Negative. Thirsha-Vine: disastrous. Thirsha-Vine: kill us all. Tharsha-Vine: tiny. Duct: dented. Mechanics: jammed.”

“You think it can make a gap in a doorway if we can find a way to drop it in just right?”

“No. Duct: search. Other plan: absent. Vent: Air?”

Carmen looked at the seed.

“All right. Let’s see if we can find that vent for you.”

Episode 130: Escape From The Space Galley!

“Let’s take out the pilot,” whispered Carmen.

Vince looked over his shoulder. Tan was retrieving water from the hydromill, and had generally been keeping to himself since the three racers had entered the galley. Vince turned back and leaned forward over the table.

“Why?” he said.

“He’ll help the Soul Survivor.”

Xorn’Tal ruffled in agreement, not trusting his translator’s audio to be silent enough to contribute to the conversation without being overheard.

“Will it help us, though?”

“Why wouldn’t it help us?”

“He’s not the real problem, and the real problem will notice that we’re getting violent, and given how the fight in space went I’m guessing that he’s already going to be looking out for us acting up. I don’t know if the element of surprise will help us or not but I’d rather not throw it away without an actual follow up plan.”

“Here’s the plan: stuff him in the refrigerator and then break our way out of this room.”

“Do you really think-”

“Tan: Welcome!” said Xorn’Tal, noisily interrupting the conspirators.

“Thanks,” said Tan, sitting down with his chilled glass of water. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m getting sick of this synthesized hydromill water.”

“Objection,” said Xorn’Tal. “Hydromill water: pure.”

“Do you have taste buds?” asked Tan, setting the glass onto the table. “Or at least any taste buds when you get water?”

“Negative.”

“That’s why, then,” said Tan. “All the impurities, the minerals, the unhealthy detritus that slowly poisons its drinkers, that’s where the flavor is.”

“As: cinder steel. To: scent: zhul flowers?”

“Yeah, exactly,” said Tan. “Human noses can’t pick up on that kind of thing.”

“Tan!” shouted the voice of the Soul Survivor. “Report to the bridge.”

“What’s up?” said Tan.

“I need your retina to overcome this security feature. Full control of this vessel is nearly mine, and the security measures are surprisingly intricate.”

“I’ll be right there.”

Tan stood and walked to the door as it unlocked and slid open. Carmen jumped from her seat and ran into the thoroughly surprised pilot, pushing him into the wall. Xorn’Tal was already shambling to the door to keep it open with a chair while Vince was running to help restrain Tan, grabbing onto the pilot’s arms and pulling them securely behind his back.

“He seems dazed,” said Vince.

“Good,” said Carmen. “Glad to see you’re on board.”

“There weren’t many options once you decked him. Not the best plan, but if it’s what we’re doing then we should do it right. Refrigerator?”

“Sure,” said Carmen, helping to carry Tan to the cold storage.

“Wait,” said Tan. “Wait… no…”

“He’s coming to!” said Vince.

“Should we hit him again?”

“Can’t that cause brain damage?”

“Sure, if you don’t do it right.”

“You can do it right?”

“Well, I’ve seen…”

“Movies?”

“Yeah,” said Carmen. “Probably not the best place for realistic medical combat knowledge.”

Xorn’Tal loomed up to the three humans, vibrating with the emotional equivalent of a sigh. The plant creature grabbed Tan from his fellow racers with his prehensile fronds, and looped a vine around the pilot before anyone realized what was happening. With a creaking, inhuman cry of pain, Xorn’Tal ripped the vine out of himself, and tied the loose end with a knot.

“You can do that?” said Vince.

“Method: capture prey,” he said, opening the refrigerator door and clearing out the rations and platforms within to make room for the prisoner. “Inefficient: sometimes necessary.”

“Are you gonna be all right?” asked Carmen.

“Vines: regenerate.”

“Great,” said Carmen. “Now, let’s head to the bridge. The Soul Survivor’s expecting someone soon, and we shouldn’t keep him waiting.”

Episode 124: Meeting Renfield

Surshen slithered out of his tree at the changing of the guard, nodding to Maurlias as she arrived to begin her time watching.

“Are there any concerns to watch for?” she asked, preparing to climb into the tree.

“I saw three Torgan heading south instead of west,” he said. “I will inform the hunters.”

“Wonderful.”

“I also heard a distant report, like thunder but compressed, or like the human makes at her forge to the northwest. This was followed by smoke near the swamp. It reminded me of the fires in the sky that herald the arrival of the aliens.”

“I will keep watch for more changes like that,” she said. “Who will you inform of this, though?”

“It is the same issue,” he said. “I will inform the hunters.”

***

Carmen stepped out of the airlock and almost crashed into the wall. She rolled her eyes.

“Lousy space ships,” she said. “Never enough room to move around on these things…”

“I apologize for the accommodations,” said the voice of The Soul Survivor. “And it will only become more cramped as we usher your two friends in here as well.”

“Look, why’re you even interested in us?”

“It’s nothing personal,” he said. “No ulterior motive beyond the most obvious one. I’m rebuilding right now and while I have vast resources hidden away elsewhere, much of it is inaccessible. Kidnapping the three greatest racers from The Corona Cup will allow for a quick influx of funds once I leave this system.”

“Wait, that’s it?” said Carmen. “This is just about money?”

“Yes, I apologize. I do enjoy the reputation for high crimes that I have garnered across the galaxy, but to finance every robot army, death ray, and mass hypnosis I must, alas, sully my hands with the work of the common gangster. Napoleon’s greatest weakness and tactical failing was a belief that his supplies were limitless, and I refuse to fall for such a self-imposed ruse.”

“You think the Racing Federation will just roll over and pay you? I hate to say it, but a lot of those suits have backgrounds as people like me. They might’ve sold out, but they’re not pushovers.”

“Oh, I know,” said The Soul Survivor. “I have done this many times, and I’ve learned that those who run sporting events can afford great amounts of money, but they shouldn’t be treated greedily. You have the hotheads who’ll try to ‘handle things themselves’, the villains who write off their employed celebrities as acceptable losses, even the pragmatists who’ll contact law enforcement agencies or mercenaries. The trick… especially with people like you, Miss Shift… is to demand payment, but a small enough amount that the risk of jeopardizing you in some way is laughable from a financial standpoint. It really is a business, you see. I fully expect that I’ll be able to release you and your friends shortly. Or, at least, shortly after I leave this system. While the Dyson Empire hasn’t disrupted my own capabilities, they have deafened the ears of anyone who might hear what I have to say from here. If you would, please follow the hall to the left. The galley will be a more comfortable place for you than this hallway.”

Carmen turned and walked. The ship was designed with only a single occupant in mind, and as such the walk was a brief one. A door slid open as she neared the end of the hall, revealing a tiny room with food and beverage dispensers, a small table, and dim lighting. A man in a pilot’s uniform stood as Carmen entered.

“Hello!” he said. “It’s good to mee-”

“You!” said the voice of the Soul Survivor. Instead of hearing the voice from all around as she had been, the voice now came from a device that Carmen had assumed to be a water cooler, but when she looked at it closely she saw that it was, in fact, a partially reconstructed version of the robotic body that The Soul Survivor was known for inhabiting. The trademark dome, filled with bubbling water, was recognizable as soon as she focused on it thanks to the countless news reports that had featured him over the years.

“Me?” said Carmen. “Yeah, me. Your kidnapping victim. Who else would I be?”

“I-”

A silence filled the room. Carmen looked at the man at the table.

“Is he always this surprised by people?”

“No,” said the man, looking worried. “Never. I don’t know what’s-”

“Silence,” said The Soul Survivor. “I’m sorry. Miss Shift, seeing things through remote cameras does not always convey the same emotional resonance as they might when seen through my active sensors.”

“What emotional resonance?” said Carmen. “I thought this kidnapping was just business.”

“It is. Business to which I must return, in fact. Xorn’Tal needs to be picked up and his fronds will make this more of a challenge. This is Tan, the captain and pilot of this vessel according to The Dyson Empire. He’s playing the role of my Renfield for today.”

“Would you mind not calling me that?” said Tan.

“Very well,” said The Soul Survivor. “You can’t help but see a comparison though.”

“Even so.”

“Carmen, Tan will show you how the machinery works if you require sustenance. Much of it requires his empirical code to activate, a hard-coded mechanism that I haven’t had the time or need to modify.”

The bubbling in the jar lowered after that. Carmen looked at Tan and nodded.

“So. You work for Emperor Dyson and The Soul Survivor at the same time?”

“I don’t work for The Soul Survivor per se,” he said. “But we’re friends! I’m putting my job on the line here, but he’s in a pinch and could use some assistance. So… yeah. I guess you could say I’m in both of those camps right now.”

“We’re gonna be great friends, then, I can tell,” said Carmen.

Episode 121: The Green and Purple Field

The three asteroid racers propelled their rides at the Dyson dogfighter that contained The Soul Survivor. Carmen led the charge, shouting a battle cry worthy of the greatest sports fan, with Vince and Xorn’Tal following suit. Carmen kept the vessel in her line of sight as long as she could to ensure that The Soul Survivor’s sensors could get a good look at her face before she had to let it drop below the horizon of her asteroid as she coasted toward it on an intercept course. With three asteroids about to smash into it, there was no need to go for a head-on collision when it would be many degrees of magnitude more awesome to completely disable the vessel and gloat. She braced for the impact.

“Uh, Carmen?”

“Not now, Vince! It’s time to rip into this thing and show the Survivor not to mess with us.”

“You’re already ripping into it. …and so is Xorn’Tal.”

“Query: vibrations?”

“I don’t know, you’re like… gliding through the ship, but there’s no impact. Like-”

“A hologram?!” shouted The Soul Survivor, his bombastic voice interrupting their communications channel. “You believe that I would surrender the tactical advantage of invisibility, and then simply wait in place for you to ram into my ship? You are as tactically clever as the rocks you ride!”

“Hey, if you keep shouting into our channel I’m gonna stop going easy on you,” said Carmen, calling on the experiences from countless turf rumbles to keep her voice from cracking. She furtively watched the sky, trying to find any trace of a cloaked ship.

“I welcome your redoubled efforts, And Fully Intend TO REDOUBLE MY OWNKSCHSHSHSHSHSHSHSREEEEEEEEEE-”

Carmen fell to her knees at the sudden squeal of an audio feedback loop, and temporarily lost control of her ride. She ripped the headset away and threw it onto the ground while she massaged her head and closed her eyes to turn off unnecessary stimulation. She could feel the uneasy tipping sensation of inertia creeping back in, and knew she’d have to reassert control quickly instead of just riding out the pain.

“Guys?” she said, and instantly wished she hadn’t since she knew that they couldn’t hear her without the headset. She opened her eyes and saw the headset sitting mere yards away. Taking a deep breath, Carmen reached out with her mind and slowed the spinning of the Kinetic Kuiper before crawling toward the device. As she neared it, she could tell that it was still issuing the ear-splitting noise, but the pitch wasn’t audible from more than a few feet away. She picked it up and flipped through a few channels before concluding that The Soul Survivor’s broadcast was affecting any channel she was likely to use. With communication between the racers effectively nullified, she switched off the headset.

A sudden inertic force kicked her through the air and a green and purple glow filled the sky above her. She willed the gravity to be stronger, and felt the pain from the feedback loop threatening to push into full migraine territory thanks to the extra exertion, and landed on the rocky surface of her ride. She tried pushing the asteroid, but nothing happened. She looked into the sky, half-expecting to see The Soul Survivor’s ship, but instead saw a strange arc of light, brighter than the rest of the green and purple glow, moving away from her atmosphere.

“Tractor beam,” she said to herself, reminded of the green energy field that had surrounded her car back on Helix when she and Zack had first tried leaving the ancient Super City.

Vince and Xorn’Tal zipped into view, rocketing past on their own asteroids. They had apparently both seen the beam of light that seemingly came from nowhere and were following it to its invisible point of origin. The vines of Xorn’Tal’s asteroid had come alive and were lashing wildly, effectively doubling the asteroid’s diameter as the titanic vegetation flirted with the hard vacuum of space. Vince’s ship had a subtler effect, with four large, almost tear-drop shaped segments peeling off of its sides and swirling around it. Carmen resisted the urge to mutter that juggling was for amateurs as the grasping vines and rotating rocks converged on the tractor beam’s invisible source.

The green and purple aura vanished, and Carmen again witnessed the unfiltered view of the stars and Mandrake. Xorn’Tal’s vines lashed where The Soul Survivor’s ship should have been, and Vince flew close enough that his four missiles would have slammed into it, but nothing happened.

Carmen reached for her headset and snapped it on. No horrible screeching sounded.

“Hello?” she said. Silence filled the channel. Right before she turned it off again, a distant click signified the presence of another line joining.

“Query: availability?”

“Xorn’Tal!” she shouted. “Great. I was worried when I didn’t hear anyone.”

“Channel: compromised/noisy/useless. Disconnection: warranted.”

“Makes sense. No sign of the tough guy?”

“Coward: Fled?”

Another click heralded the arrival of a new participant.

“Hello?” asked Vince.

“Greetingage,” said Xorn’Tal.

“Hey,” said Carmen. “Vince, I think you and Xorn’Tal might’ve chased him off.”

“I think he was counting on us to back down,” said Vince.

“I think you’re right,” said Carmen. “I’m guessing he wasn’t prepared to fight three at once.”

“I confess you are correct,” said the Soul Survivor, chiming in over their speakers. “But I have always been prepared for two.”

From a different region of space, the green and purple energy lanced toward Vince’s asteroid, smearing it with the tractor beam’s energy field and creating a barrier between the asteroid and the four smaller rocks floating around it. The beam of energy sliced through space, carrying Vince’s ship with it. Midway through the pendulous arc, the beam vanished, and the field began to dissipate, but only as Vince’s ride hurtled toward Xorn’Tal’s asteroid. Xorn’Tal’s vines spiraled together, possibly in an attempt to make a defensive cushion, and Carmen saw the telltale slowing of the asteroid that indicated that Flashman was trying to regain control of his ride. The two asteroids collided, slowly but with visible damage.

Carmen held her breath. Vince and Xorn’Tal had both had the right combination of training and practical experience to survive an impact like that, asteroid collisions being one of the primary concerns of the racing federation. Even so, a direct hit like that could leave someone dead.

“Xorn?!” Carmen shouted? “Vince?!”

“They can’t hear you,” said The Soul Survivor.

“You’re blocking my channel?”

“Either that, or they’re dead. I’d rather not say, as uncertainty is a powerful tool. Now, I commend your bravado in the face of unquestionable defeat, but I really do insist that you surrender.”

Carmen glared. Her asteroid shot through the void in the direction that she had last seen The Soul Survivor’s ship. From a different location the beam again arced through space, and once again locked onto Carmen’s asteroid.

“Foolish racer. Your psychic power is an incredible gift, but it can be shut down by a device so simple that it isn’t even regulated as a weapon by most militaries. Your mind would have to be magnified even beyond the power of mine to fight back against tractor beams. Why do you think that roving gangs of Petrakinetic pirates haven’t conquered systems by now? Why don’t the armies of known space employ petrakinetic divisions? Your power is a simple one, one that I can nullify at the push of a button.”

Carmen stared in the direction of the beam before turning her back on the invisible ship, looking toward Vince Flashman and Xorn’Tal. Their asteroids were beginning to drift apart. She noted a variance in the flow of Xorn’Tal’s asteroid and a twitching of the fronds and vines that grew from its surface. Vince’s changed its course, possibly a change small enough that someone unfamiliar with the personal touch involved in petrakinetic manipulation wouldn’t notice. They were alive.

“Yeah, but at the end of the day we’re the ones still standing. No deal.”

“I see,” said The Soul Survivor. “To clarify your situation: since you won’t surrender, I will envelope one of your friends’ asteroids with the tractor beam, and launch it at the other one again. This will continue until there asteroids no longer remain. The moment you begin interfering, a moment we both know will arrive, you will be included in this constant barrage of asteroids. You and your two allies will be dead, your oft-celebrated asteroids will be unidentifiable rubble, and I will continue to operate without a scratch.”

“We know what to expect now,” said Carmen. “You can only hit one of us at a time, and when we start getting a good fix on your ship we’ll have a better shot at keeping out of your tractor beam’s sights. It won’t take long to end you.”

“Do you have long?” said the Soul Survivor. “Can any of you be lucky enough to survive two more collisions like that? One more?”

“I’m fine risking it.”

“Are you fine risking them? Last chance to avoid the carnage, Carmen Shift. You can save their lives, or end them.”

Carmen turned to look at the other two asteroids. She had no idea what was happening on them right now, other than the fact that they were probably both alive. They might even be in a coma and nearing a total loss of atmosphere. Or they could be ready to fight. And it was a fight they could win, in that case. But only in that case.

The green and purple field again vanished from her sky, instantly shifting to cover Xorn’Tal’s asteroid. The tractor beam swung like a pendulum, and pulled the massive rock along with it, nearing the point of its curve where it would be easiest to fling it at Vince’s ship.

“Wait!” shouted Carmen. “Wait, don’t… do that. I’ll surrender.”

“Excellent. Prepare to board the vessel when it reappears. I’m happy to hear that the three of you have chosen to live.”

“Sure,” said Carmen, taking her headset off and looking up into the sky to keep an eye out for the vessel. “And we’ll live long enough to make you regret it.”

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 109: The View From Above

Carmen felt the crunch of the ship on the opposite side of her asteroid and scanned the skies for the next target. The nearly crippled law enforcement vessel that she, Vince and Xorn’Tal saved had given up trying to convince them to leave, and had instead left to find a dock where it could be repaired. More of the strange ships had blasted into the system near Mandrake, and most had ignored the racers, but four others had stopped to attack. Each racer had landed the final, crushing strike that left the ships drifting in the vacuum on two so far, and Carmen was eager to get to three before Vince or Xorn’Tal could.

Another ship neared Mandrake, bearing the same logo that Carmen had started to recognize, half of an eye’s outer edge with an entire pupil in the center. The ship was much larger than the flimsy fighter ships that she had been tearing apart.

“We might not want to take on that one,” said Vince.

“Show some backbone, will ya?”

“New ship: heavy structure,” said Xorn’tal. “Hull: strong. Aerodynamics: unimportant. Asteroid structure: weaker.”

“Maybe yours is,” said Carmen.

“Hey, Carmen, that shangmere lady carved up your ride pretty badly. It’s been a rush fighting off… whatever these are, but we’ve been taking some damage too. It won’t take them long to figure out that they can just target the single, mostly defenseless life form on each asteroid to end the problem. Besides, the police got away, so we’re not protecting the Phantom Matador data anymore.”

Carmen started to respond but a public channel began broadcasting. She switched feeds just as the incoming message started.

“Petrakinetic racers,” said the strong voice on the other end of the line, “do not interfere. We are the first salvo of The Dyson Empire’s attack on the Veskid system. We respect your desire to stand your ground. Understand that our fight is not with members of the federation, but with the authorities of Veskid.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were phrasing that to try and side with us by making the big tamales on Veskid seem like a common enemy,” said Carmen.

“What?” said the voice. “No, I’m not.”

“Seems like you are,” said Vince. “No different than corporations who try to look cool by paying celebrities to say they were paid to endorse their product.”

“Manipulation: not antagonistic: perpetual.”

“…What?” said the voice on the other end.

“He says that just because you’re trying to be hip, it doesn’t really mean that you’re wrong,” said Carmen. “It doesn’t mean that you’re right, either.”

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter,” said the voice. “We’ll make a deal, though: you stop smashing our ships, we don’t blast your asteroids out of the sky. You can’t stop us from invading, but we’ll let you steer clear.”

“Not enough,” said Carmen. “I want you to stop passing by Mandrake. Don’t come near this planet when you invade the system.”

“Seriously?” said the voice. “It’s a major path, right on our route.”

“Look, either stay far enough from Mandrake that you’re not showing up on local channels, or know that you’re going to have to slow down to tangle with us until you take us down. Yeah, you’ll probably blast us out of the sky eventually, but how sure are you that it’ll be soon enough to keep us from being a liability?”

“Pretty sure,” said the voice. “I’m especially certain if we don’t let the first few waves against you be the model you’re used to fighting.”

“You’re telling me your military plans’ll seriously be hampered by going a bit to the left or the right for however long Mandrake’s orbit keeps it in your way?”

The voice went silent, but in the background Carmen heard muffled discussions. Soon, a new voice was heard.

“We’ll consider your offer,” said the new voice. “While we consider, would you give us time for this vessel to retrieve the ships you’ve disabled? We’re detecting life signs, but they may need medical attention.”

“Deal,” said Carmen. “Signing off for now, call us when you make up your mind.”

Carmen switched off the main channel and opened the private one between herself, Xorn’Tal and Vince Flashman.

“I don’t trust ‘em,” said Vince.

“Obviously,” said Carmen. “They’ll try to push through before too long.”

“Consideration: withdrawal?”

“Wouldn’t be a crazy idea to pull back,” said Vince.

“Not just yet,” said Carmen. “I think we can slow ‘em down here for a bit longer.”

“Xorn’Tal and I can. Is your asteroid really up to it?”

Carmen concentrated and felt the structure of the Kinetic Kuiper. It was bad. There was a lot of density to it, but it wouldn’t be long before she was juggling multiple objects instead of propelling a single one. It was still repairable, but only just.

“It’ll have to be,” she said. “I’ve still gotta get my friend off that planet.”

“With just an asteroid? With no landing or retrieval gear?”

Carmen blinked.

“I’ll solve that problem when we get to it,” she said.

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack looked through his binoculars, an old fashioned approach that didn’t leave an electromagnetic signature like most long-range visual scanners and didn’t leave cyber footprints like redirected satellites. From his camouflaged tent on scenic Mount Porthinel he counted the seconds while watching the resort hotel that housed some of the richest and most celebrated people who ever wanted to relax without answering any uncomfortable questions.

Another thirty seconds and the doors to the gated pool area opened to reveal Azar and the towering form of Harold Zamona behind him, right on schedule. Over the last month, Zack had found the six best places on the mountain for observing Azar and Zamona. It had been rough going, but he was willing to accept the fact that Zamona legitimately meant no harm to Azar after so long. The two had enjoyed the luxuries offered by Ravelar, and Zamona hadn’t once done anything suspicious. Either Zamona was playing a very, very long game, or he was genuinely willing to assist Azar on this life of leisurely adventure.

Zack’s timer chimed. He took a deep breath and put away his binoculars. It would take him time to get off the mountain and even longer to walk to the space port, plus he should add time to dress in a manner that would make it look like he hadn’t been camping on a mountain for a month. He’d given himself two hours, but it would likely only take Azar and Zamona ten minutes, giving them plenty of time to enjoy some poolside fun. He’d have more of a head start than he’d need.

***

“He didn’t send a message saying that he’d missed the flight, did he?” asked Azar.

“No,” said Zamona, watching the passengers collecting their luggage. “But unless he’s not with the passengers of the Daring Dozen, he’s just not here.”

“I don’t like this,” said Azar, watching a blue-skinned cross between a mosquito and a jackal retrieving its luggage from the baggage claim.

“I know.”

“He should have let me pay for it all.”

“And miss my chance at testing out my infiltration technique?” asked Zack, walking up behind them. Azar spun in place, laughed at the sight of Zack, and gave the detective a quick hug. Harold Zamona merely smirked.

“You’re telling me you got on that plane without anyone knowing?”

“I had an earlier flight, actually,” said Zack. “I just knew that I’d be presentable by the time the Daring Dozen was disembarking. You don’t want to see a person right after they’ve been hiding by a Pestle Reactor for half a week.”

“You were hiding by the Pestle Reactor?” said Azar.

“No, but it’s fun to tell people that I can,” said Zack.

“I was about to say, that could cause brain damage, if not outright death,” said Azar. “I should know, some of my money came from working near an unshielded one for two hours a day to help Bristlecorp’s project finish on time.”

“You wouldn’t believe the things this guy did,” said Azar. “He’s been telling me all of the things he got his payment for. Can you believe they’d send someone with three Ph.D.’s into space just to do some soldering?”

“Absolutely,” said Zack. “But only because I’ve been doing my homework, and having a few other people do homework for me so that my poking around wouldn’t raise too many red flags. They needed the best and brightest to do the work, and with all the ethical concerns about programming artificial intelligences to be willing to toss their lives down the drain for projects on this level, they went with good old fashioned human laborers for suspiciously large payouts. Azar, we always knew that you were lucky to survive there, but I think I’ve found evidence that you’ve been even luckier than you knew. Some of those projects were all-but designed to kill off workers before they finished their work.”

“What?” said Azar, his brow creasing.

“Absolutely,” said Zack. “Don’t worry, though, it might be our ace in the hole. Sister Barris and I were hoping to find evidence that would link BristleCorp to the price on your head in a way that would make them hyper-liable if anything shy of natural causes did you in, but we weren’t expecting quite so much. Seriously, Barris is good at her job.”

“She does seem diligent,” said Azar. “She could make sense of a document that I’d never be able to understand.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, smart guy,” said Zack. “Or her, either. Some of the riskier documents she procured through less than legal methods. I won’t tell you that she almost strangled the friend of someone who pulled a gun on her, and I won’t tell you that she now knows that her WimpHelm will, in fact, stop a knife.”

“You sure you need me on this security job?” asked Zamona.

“Absolutely,” said Azar. “Zack can’t be both here and investigating my case back home.”

“Right,” said Zack, thinking over the last month of mountain-side camping and spying on people who were paying for the privilege of not being spied upon. “Though with some of the dirt uncovered by the people I’ve been asking to do side research for me, it’s possible that I might be able to stick around for a bit longer than planned.”

“Excellent!” said Azar. “It’ll be wonderful to have you around.”

“Is it necessary, though?” asked Zamona. “A third party might draw more attention.”

“There’s a little risk, yes,” said Zack. “Unfortunately, I think it’s necessary. There are a few things I need to find out, and you’ll be the best person to ask, Azar.”

“I’ll help however I can,” said Azar.

“Good,” said Zack. “Because we’re going to figure out each and every way that BristleCorp tried to kill you.”

Episode 103: The Amber View

Vox Cul-Dar stared at the expanse of space. The planet Mandrake filled the lower right-hand quadrant of his window, taunting him with brief glimpses of the vessels and asteroids that allowed everyone but him to be on that side of the planet. He periodically tapped the serrated ridges of his arm against the wall, drumming a tattoo that would start as one of the ancient mantra-pats from his home world. Sometime between the third or fourth repetition he would realize that it was morphing into one of the pop songs that he’d heard among the humans again, a realization that would jolt him back into silence.

His one consolation was that the orbiting was not geosynchronous. If the racing federation would not leave his landing site, then the tedious passage of time would bring the landing site to him. The thought started as a sarcastic barb in a passing conversation with one of the Amber Sting’s crew, but it was becoming more and more viable with every second. Was investigating The Phantom Matador truly worth the three hours that had been spent?

Three military-style fighter vessels careened from the other side of Mandrake and past his window. The flight was over in an instant, and didn’t register as having occurred until it was already over. Vox leaned forward to look back, knowing that the ships would likely already be too far for him to see but curious enough not to care.

“Sir?”

Vox looked back over his shoulder. The Amber Sting’s captain stood behind him. Vox smiled, turned back, and stood at his full height.

“There’s been a problem,” said the captain.

“Does it have anything to do with the ships that just rocketed past my window?”

“Probably. System-wide communications are down. We’re limited to light-speed data and local networking.”

“That’s implausible.”

“Very. Just before communications went off, instructions were being relayed to all ships in the system to make their way to a safe port.”

“Safe port? No, we need to go to Mandrake.”

“I understand, sir. That’s why I bring this trouble to you. The magnitude of the crime for taking you to Mandrake has increased, as has the scrutiny of every ship en route to anywhere. Taking the time to swing by Mandrake will be harder.”

“Then take the more difficult steps to finish the mission.”

“Sir, the price you paid for this job is no longer worth the risk.”

Vox clapped his arms together rapidly, a staccato rhythm that perfectly recreated the mantra-pat from his culture. He focused his mind on his resources.

“I can offer you an extra twenty percent right now. Will that be sufficient?”

“Ordinarily, I’d require an extra thirty-five, but given your situation we can probably meet you part way on this.”

“The magnanimity of humans again rears its head. Without system-wide communications I won’t be able to secure the other fifteen percent until after this situation resolves itself.”

“Don’t worry about that.”

“I insist,” said Vox. “I always pay my debts. In time.”

“Good to hear. Hopefully the racing federation’s investigation will be broken up quickly thanks to the system-wide emergency. Barring any direct intervention from authorities we should be landing quickly.”

Vox nodded, folded his arms, and sat. He again turned to the window and looked toward Mandrake, his attention drawn by strange flashes of light near what few scattering ships he could see. It wouldn’t be long now.

The captain turned to head to the cargo bay. The conversation with the Pyrhian would be more pleasant. She’d already paid extra for the trip as “added security”, and this situation fell directly under those sorts of circumstances. But she should, at least, be informed about the complications.