Episode 157: The Teleporting Puzzle

Captain Calen stood by the door to the computer terminal station, eyeing the few people who walked by without noticing her. Each passing agent of the Dyson Empire reminded her that she was focusing on remaining hidden, and that vengeance needed to wait.

“This is curious, Captain. If I’m reading the schematics properly, this ship is actually three vessels.”

“What?” said Calen, leaning in to look at Trell, sitting at the terminal that extended from the pillar in the center of the room along with the other five unoccupied stations.

“There are three ships, but they’re functioning as one.”

“Didn’t Ortega think that all of this technology came from other ships? I’ve heard of many unusual vessels in my day Ensign, and personally discovered many others, but I’ve yet to see a ship like this, so clearly designed for humanity, that could function in that fashion, apart from the Astroguard’s experiments with saucer and nacelle integration.”

“The… captain from the Astroguard did say this, yes,” said Trell. “And for the smaller ships like Tan’s fighter, he was accurate. The technology within this larger vessel, while also largely borrowed from other sources, has been customized, altered, or built from scratch where needed. With the proper commands, we could cause this ship to break into two or three functional pieces that would act on their own as vessels.”

“I see,” said Calen, taking a step into the room. “Trell, would this create piloting complications? Flying a ship that was multiple ships?”

“It might, but I believe they would be negligible in a vacuum at most standard velocities. The nature of the integration seems to be built with the avoidance of potential stress-fractures from inertia in mind.”

“How similar would it be to our trial exercises with the Scuttler?” asked Calen. “We could have five ships working in tandem to force another vessel in another direction, and usher them to safer harbor with ease during the challenges set before us and the other Scuttlers.”

“I believe there would be similarities, but it would be even easier. Our experience with Scuttlers might give us a piloting edge, though. Especially considering the lack of training that we’ve seen in all of the Dyson Empire’s conscripts.”

“Oh, I like hearing that, I truly do. How do you suppose the vessels connect? Do they take the time to couple and decouple in space? What if they felt a need during the heat of battle?”

“I suppose they’d manage without unless they truly felt safe. These are very intricate connections, and while separating could be done quickly, I don’t see combining being reasonable mid-combat. Unless…”

Trell grew silent and began tapping the interface, quickly scrolling through commands and schematics in the screen of tangible electricity that sparkled in front of her eyes.

“Captain, do you remember the Phoenix Circuitry?”

“Of course. That horrid secret technology was all that stood between me and destroying Tan’s vessel, a request made when you and Captain Ortega worked together to pacify me.”

“Unpleasant as the captain from the Astroguard may have been, the crash course it gave me on the Phoenix Circuitry was useful here… it’s laced through the connections of the ships.”

“So? You said there were tracings of the circuitry throughout the entirety of Tan’s vessel. Why would any Dyson empire ship be different, especially custom-built jobs like this that would differ from Tan’s?”

“Because the circuitry here is designed to move through the connections. The Phoenix Circuitry can create a larger circuit pattern through all of the connected ships.”

“Wait… Trell, if we were able to bring the Scuttler through the teleportation by just clinging to the vessel with the Scuttler’s own machinery…”

“These vessels are built for coordinated receiverless teleportation, Captain. They might even be able to teleport from a disconnected state to a connected one. Ordinarily I’d assume that this wouldn’t be possible, but a lot of the coordinating instructions I’m seeing here look like they can teleport to a position in relation to their space within the phoenix circuit relative to all the other participants rather than to a specified distance or set of coordinates.”

Captain Calen fully turned her back from the doorway, and approached Trell’s screen, leaning over her ensign’s shoulder for a better look.

“It’s an incredible bounty you’ve found, then. Tactical teleportation for rapid redeployment… like stuffing all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into its box, shaking it, and then pulling the assembled picture from within. Trell, I see an armada of a dozen vessels, adeptly cutting through the Magellan Mine-Cloud without tripping a single security measure, and then reforming into a battleship capable of destroying any resistance on the opposite side! Farthest Fleet, this is technology that can turn barbarians into emperors!”

“Wouldn’t the ships be able to simply teleport to the opposite side of the mines?”

“We still don’t know the limitations of Dyson’s technologies, Ensign, I make no assumptions. On that note… be sure to save as much of this data as you can without raising security concerns. If we can’t reclaim Morcala and strike the death-blow to Dyson himself, we may yet have an incredible career of piracy ahead.”

Advertisements

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 155: Working The Messenger

Harold Zamona stormed through the cell corridor until he reached the cell watched by the armed guard, who saluted the approaching figure and stepped back to get out of the way. The Emperor’s Herald stopped and looked through the force field that acted as the cell’s door and fourth wall.

“It’s quite a mess you’ve put me in, Ortega.”

“Good to see you to,” said the captain, leaning on the small cot provided within the cell. “This guard you left me with won’t talk. I can normally get a few words out of a guard even if I can’t trick them into doing anything for me, but this guy’s trained too well. Good job on that, incidentally.”

“Seems that your ad libbing paid off. Everyone’s confused about my demands, sayin’ that it’s time to see you and me fight.”

“What can I say? People like me.”

“People trust you, I’ll give ya that. So I’ve got good news for you: you’re getting the fight.”

Ortega sat up in his cot.

“Oh? Great. I’m a little surprised, but great.”

“Not great,” said Zamona. “You’re gonna be dead. Everyone’s gonna see it. And instead of a nice, clean takeover, everything’s gonna slow down.”

“You’re telling me that your invasion was going to be a bloodless one, Zamona?”

“I’m telling you that you’d better start comin’ to terms with your life, because it’s just about done. You’ll get your flight suit, and your blaster, and be ushered to the arena that we’ll set up for just you and me.”

“Great! I’ll see you in the ring.”

Ortega leaned back into his cot and Zamona narrowed his eyes. Soon, Captain Ortega looked back at the cell entrance.

“Is there something else?” said Ortega.

“What’s your game here, boy? You’re gonna die here. I’ve tried lookin’ at this from every angle, and at the end of the day it’s just gonna end with Veskid still conquered and you dead.”

“Honestly, I’m not sure,” said Ortega. “I’m hoping things’ll work out.”

“Things don’t work out like this. Not for you.”

“We’ll see,” said Ortega. “We’ll see.”

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 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.”

Episode 152: Circuses

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

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

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

“How?” asked Zamona.

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

“You mean we’re being ignored?”

“Yes, sir. By BristleCorp.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 151: A Truth Recalled

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

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

“Come in, Tacara.”

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

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

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

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

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

“It looked like ‘em.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Carlu?”

“Yeah?”

“What was that about justice?”

“Makin’ sure it’s done?”

“Yeah, that.”

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

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

“I did, with the main report.”

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 150: The Unmasking

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

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

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

“Wait, you saw him without a mask?”

“Yeah, back on the asteroids.”

“You were on some asteroids?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

“You think he might be a special case?”

“No such thing as a case that isn’t.”

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

“No, I know who he is.”

“You do?” said Zack. “Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 149: Detour From Memory Lane

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

“Well?” she asked.

“I’m thinking.”

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

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

“I don’t believe you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zack stood up straighter.

“Just how good is that reticle of yours?”

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

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

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

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

Fletch frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yellow?”

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

“Something I was thinking earlier, not important.”

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

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

“Six hours?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Episode 148: Haggling

Zack leaned against a tree until he felt the wave of nausea pass. His throat was scratching like a flea circus pitchman, but he couldn’t cough until he had the Phantom Matador in point blank range of his strikers.

He lifted his head. The clearing was large, and the glowing fire cast long shadows which Zack tried to use as he left the tree line. The Phantom Matador was sitting near the fire, his cape pulled behind him and his hat pulled down in front of his face. He might have been dozing, an ideal situation that Zack wouldn’t count on.

He stepped closer, covering the distance. He checked Nectra’s scanner one last time, and determined that The Phantom Matador was, in fact, right in front of him. No strange psychic projections were hampering the scene.

Zack slipped the tracker into a pocket of his coat and reached for his holsters. The twin Purcellian Striker pistols lifted and aimed at the Matador. He stepped closer. Hey, Mat… that’s what he’d say. Hey, Mat. It’d give the upper hand conversationally.

Zack closed to within five feet of the Matador. A gentle wind was blowing through the clearing, pushing the smoke from the fire to the side.

Zack heard a click from the treeline ahead of him.

The whine of a powerful capacitor charging sounded from the darkness.

Zack panicked and started jumping to the right. Time slowed as a glowing sphere of blue-white energy launched from the darkness. Zack fell on the ground and the blast of energy passed over his head. Zack rolled to a kneeling position and aimed his Strikers at the darkness. He watched and listened carefully as the analytical part of his mind started processing.

“Vodianoi Cannon?” he whispered to himself, watching the trees carefully, and missing the sound of the footsteps behind him.

“Samodiva Cannon,” said a voice. Zack looked over his shoulder and saw a woman in a blue cysuit with a cybernetic reticle over an eye. She held her near-legendary Chernoblaster, keeping it at a point-blank range.

“Fletch?!” he said, instinctively trying to jump back, but tripping over his own feet as he did so.

“The Vodianoi Cannon is built to be submerged under water. The Samodiva Cannon is built to hide in clusters of trees, caves, other dark wilderness locations. Now, I would’ve preferred to use a Jinmenju Snare instead of a Samodiva Cannon… and if we were near water I actually brought a Jorogumo Striker… but you work with what you’ve got!”

Zack’s mind raced. He didn’t know military-grade munitions the way that Fletch did, but there was a definite pattern.

“I don’t… I don’t understand. Fletch, the Samodiva’s not deadly.”

“What if you’d picked up the poor Phantom Matador to use as a human shield?” she said. “I can get his bounty if he’s alive.”

“But… the Jinmenju Snare, that’s just a trapping device, isn’t it?”

“Doesn’t leave much mess to clean up, and doesn’t take away so much evidence that they’ve only got my say so that I finished the job. The DMA’ll award a bounty if there’s no body, but only if you can prove that you caused the death.”

Zack narrowed his eyes.

“That blaster of yours would leave the evidence, though. And I can’t help but notice that I’m still noticin’ things, almost like you hadn’t killed me yet.”

“I haven’t.”

“You’re a professional, Fletch,” he said. “Best in the business. Not that I’m not grateful, but why’re you not finishing me off? What do you want?”

“Make no mistake, I do want to kill you,” said Fletch. “I wanted to kill you before, at Murk’s stronghold in Helix. There were too many other mercenaries crawling around, though. Too much competition. Especially from your friend Igneous.”

Zack slowly rose to his feet, keeping a close eye on the gun.

“You think she’d stop someone from gettin’ to me? She’s not stupid. The DMA’d put a bounty on her head just like on mine if she helped me.”

“She could still injure another assassin and claim it was an attempt to catch you. A moot point, though, as she helped me to find you here on Mandrake. Practically arranged it, even.”

Zack opened his mouth to respond but couldn’t. Fletch paused and watched his face carefully.

“Did she, now?” he said.

“She did. Now, I do plan on killing you, Zack Gamma, the bounty’s only good if you’re dead. But I need some information first, and fortunately there aren’t any other bounty hunters or assassins on this planet who might overhear, assuming he knows what’s good for him.”

“Him?”

“Had some competition when I first got here, but it’s been handled. Ready to tell me what I want to know?”

“Why should I? You’ll kill me anyway.”

“You want a five minute head start?”

“Pass. I’ll take a day’s head start, though.”

“You think I’d let you last a day out there?”

“I think you’ll let me last however long we agree on.”

Fletch paused and, after a moment, lowered the gun to her side.

“Two hours.”

“Twelve hours.”

“Six.”

“Eight.”

“Six, or I kill you right now,” she said. “I want to know, but I don’t want to know that badly.”

“You’re tryin’ to lowball me. We can push this to seven.”

Fletch raised the Chernoblaster.

“Or six,” said Zack. “Six hour head start… and I get the Phantom Matador.”

Fletch lowered her weapon and looked over at the unconscious figure that she’d propped by the fire.

“He’ll just be dead weight while you put distance between yourself and me. And with no way off the planet he’s just going back into my custody after I catch you.”

“You’ll have to pry him away from the Sthenites,” said Zack. “I’m in the middle of a trial, and I’m about out of time, but he’s important to it.”

Fletch looked up to the sky, then back to the Phantom Matador. Her reticle swiveled and focused on Zack while she stared at her sleeping prisoner.

“I suppose six hours would give me time to make some more preparations at the Bake-Kujira.”

“The what?”

“My ship,” said Fletch. “Fine. You’ve got your six hours, and the custody of the Phantom Matador. Congrats on another fourth of a day of life, Zack Gamma. Assuming, of course, that your information is good.”

“Shoot,” said Zack. “Well, I mean… go for it. Ask your questions, I mean.”

“I’ve only got one,” said Fletch. “What did you do to get the DMA to put this bounty on your head?”