Tag Archives: adventure

Episode 120: Trial by Verdict

Zack twirled his Purcellian Striker pistols and scanned the trees around him. He’d waited for more than two hours, and was hoping that he wouldn’t have to wait until the end of the six he’d been given by the Suzerain.

“Should’ve asked Chala for some ice water,” he said.

A distant squawking creature made itself known in the distance.

“I wonder if Chala even has ice on this planet,” he said.

“Good question,” said a voice from above. Zack tensed and started to look up, but not before Nectra dropped onto him from above, slamming into his back and pinning him to the leaf-covered, peaty soil. She twirled her staff triumphantly, and brought it down on top of one of Zack’s arms to keep it from moving the pistol, and one of her clawed feet pinned the other arm. Zack heard a familiar buzz of energy and realized that her staff was likely energized from its contact with him, meaning it had again turned into the Virellium Scythe.

He started to twist his head to look up at the shangmere, but Nectra kicked off his hat and held down his head with her other foot.

“Hello again, Zack,” she said. “You ran off from the cave. It’s a shame you delayed my progress.”

“Nectra, how are you even planning on getting off this world?” Zack asked. “If you kill me, how’ll you get back to Veskid to prove your theory?”

“My theory about Virellium trackers? Well, obviously, we’ll need to take whoever was coming to pick you up. You worked so hard to get to Mandrake, Zack, and a smart guy like you will have a plan to get off again. You probably arranged for a ride. It’s an educated guess, but I feel good about it.”

“Here’s another educated guess for you, then,” said Zack. “You’ve been in contact with The Phantom Matador. What’d you do, fly him all the way down to the planet from Carmen’s asteroid? That must’ve been quite the fall.”

“Oh, I was right about you being smart… yes, he’s been helping me to find you. With my tracker, he’s very capable of figuring out not just where you are but where you’ll be by observing how the signal changes. I can’t condone villainy, of course, but he’d have a huge future as a criminal mastermind if he applied himself.”

“He’s already a criminal,” said Zack. “He’s a stalker and a trespasser, and he also assaulted me with a boulder once. I can see how that last one might not count against him, though, since it seems like the universe has agreed that I’m a fair target.”

“I’m sorry about that,” said Nectra. “But it gets us back on track. Now, I don’t want to go to the trouble of smuggling you off this planet and back to Veskid while you’re dead, but you’ve got a habit of getting away while alive. So… Zack, do I kill you now? How would the DMA do that?”

“I didn’t work with the assassins,” said Zack. “I did the honest jobs. But yes, the assassins would probably kill me now.”

“Oh,” said Nectra, her excited tone suddenly slowing and losing its bright edge. “I see. Yes… well then. I guess this is goodbye, Zack? Zack, I’m… this is embarrassing. I know I just met you yesterday, but I’m really going to miss you.”

“Well, there’s a way other than killing me right now,” said Zack.

“Good!” said Nectra. “I mean… what?”

“I need to know some things first. When the Phantom Matador was using your tracking device, or helping you to use it, or whatever, did he kill anyone?”

Zack listened to Nectra’s breathing. It slowed. The sounds of jungle insects and beasts filled the air.

“I think so,” she said. “I think he used that energy sword of his. He wouldn’t say it directly, but I saw the bodies whenever I left. All he said was that they ‘saw him’ and he ‘needed to get away.’ They might have killed him, Zack.”

“I get that,” said Zack. “And they might’ve. They’re not unreasonable, though. Look, Nectra, I need your help in catching The Phantom Matador.”

“What? But he’s helping me.”

“Right, but he’s killed Sthenites. Nectra, he’s a murderer. Beneath that dark, mysterious persona, The Phantom Matador is a parasite on any society he’s in. I mean, in less than twenty-four hours he became this region’s most notorious murderer, and that was almost pinned on me.”

Zack felt the claws at the back of his neck loosen and lift. He looked over his shoulder and saw Nectra, looking confused.

“He said I should kill you here. He said you’d cause trouble for us if I saved killing you for later.”

“I would,” said Zack. “He’s right about that. But that’s not really the issue, is it? You shouldn’t kill me at all, Nectra. And the Matador’s gotta face justice from the Sthenites. One other issue: these bushes are filled with sthenite warriors. They’re mostly here to make sure I don’t escape… they didn’t believe my story about a winged lady swooping in to hunt me down… but they’re also here for you. Kill me, and they’ll attack you.”

“Zack? You set a trap for me?”

“No, no I set a safety net for myself. The flip side is this: I’m still in the middle of a weird trial thing. Help us catch The Phantom Matador, and I’ll agree to combat against you overseen by the Suzerain of the Sthenites, a combat that the Suzerain declared to be a sufficient conclusion to my trial if you turned out to exist. You win that combat, I’ll be your prisoner. I win, you leave me alone.”

“And if I try to abduct you or kill you now, I lose either way,” said Nectra, sounding crestfallen.

“Well… don’t look at it like that,” said Zack. “I’m the one in a trap here. You could always just fly away. So… help us find The Matador?”

Nectra closed her eyes and took some deep breaths. Soon she opened them again and nodded.

“Sure,” she said. “Let’s find that Phantom.”

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Episode 119: Mine and Mire

“Heed my words, Vox Cul-Dar. The time has come for you to wake.”

Vox’s bulbous eyes snapped open.

“I rise a new person, prepared for a new day, prepared for my future,” he said, automatically reciting the words that had been part of the first few moments of cognitive thought of every waking since he had first joined the monastery as a child. He scanned the compartment, a room with a low ceiling and long shadows cast from broken windows. He saw little dust, but dirt and leaves littered the compartment. When he recognized the molded plastic in the center of the room as the frame for a chair, the purpose of the chamber came to his mind.

“How did I get in a space ship?” he said. “And… Rendelac, what’s become of Fletch?”

“Fletch left you here after I requested that she not severely wound you to hinder your further progress. You have been unconscious for nearly seven hours. Vox Cul-Dar, I-”

“Seven hours… she’s got an incredible head start, then. We’ll have to hurry.”

“I would ask you, not for the first time, to refrain from this task, Vox Cul-Dar. She left you here when I gave my word to ask you to stop. She represents a more active danger than the already problematic environment of this world.”

“I appreciate your concern, Rendelac, but-”

“Forgive my interruption, but I believe we are sinking.”

Vox looked around the shuttle interior. He located Rendelac sitting on the top of some of his other possessions in the ship’s chair. He picked up the computer and twirled his pack onto his back.

“Sinking?”

“I was trying to rouse you from your slumber for two hours. The problem is now quite dire. Our elevation is gradually decreasing, and I fear that the remains of this vessel are submerging into the swamp.”

“You should have mentioned this sooner,” said Vox, jumping to one of the broken windows. The twisted trees and choked vegetation beyond sat in a stagnant sea of green. The incredible humidity and stench of decay was almost comfortable to Vox, and the gentle curve of the ship’s hull provided ample purchase for him to scramble up and out.

“I apologize,” said Rendelac. “You had other questions, and my programming dictated that I answer them, to a point.”

“How fortunate I am that the original Rendelac coded you to eventually concede the all-important etiquette for quick responses to danger.”

“The vessel would likely not have become truly dangerous for another twenty minutes.”

“Oh, I see. Why hurry at all then?”

“The swampy terrain beyond the vessel might have altered by our sinking, and as such-”

“That was sarcasm, Rendelac.”

“A sarcastic tongue is an exercise for a mind in disarray.”

“I am aware of the teachings,” said Vox. He stood upon the ship and scanned the horizon. He saw a tree-covered shoreline a mere dozen feet away, and some other fallen debris created a workable path back to the jungle for one of his skills. He carefully slid down the sloping edge of the vessel.

“Did Fletch happen to say why she barged through the jungles until she found a swamp just for dispatching me?”

“She was apparently very knowledgeable of the region. She knew this swamp would be here, and that it was the assumed final resting place of a vessel that had crashed when an adventurous entrepreneur crash-landed after an attempt to begin a logging and mining operation. He was desperate to leave after the locals realized the extent to which his presence would disrupt their environment, but did not begin flying away until after the Sthenites had time to sabotage his ship.”

“Sthenites,” said Vox, carefully hopping from the ship to a log wedged between the vessel and a small pile of rocks and silt. “I should have researched this world more, just as it appears that Fletch has… Sthenites are the creatures that resemble Terran serpents, but with feathers?”

“Yes,” said Rendelac. “You are aware of them?”

“The Rythnian Boutique had two as founding members,” said Vox. “After being abducted from their own world, they escaped on Veskid but found that they could do well for themselves. The poisons on Mandrake are second to none, and with the Desperate Measures Agency’s headquarters so near there was a high demand for their specialized knowledge.”

“A curious coincidence,” said Rendelac.

“A beneficial one,” said Vox, hopping to the rock pile and carefully gaging the leap to what looked like a relatively benign clump of a sargasso-like weed. “Their knowledge allowed me to find the Cerulean Bloom after we landed here.”

He landed on the clump of weeds and was at first relieved to find that the clump was thick and strong enough to support his weight, but some of the vines whipped around his leg.

“Ugh… alien plant life,” he said. He reached down and started untwisting the vine.

“The manner of that twist did not appear to be the result of locomotion on the plant’s part,” said Rendelac. “It almost appeared mechanical. Strange, considering that the plant appears capable of moving on its own, albeit in a different way.”

“A fluke of circumstance, then.”

A strange, high-pitched beep filled the air.

“Rendelac, was that you?”

“Negative. The noise issued from the vegetation currently entwined around your leg.”

Another beep sounded. Vox moved aside the vegetative clumps and took a sharp intake of breath at the appearance of a timer counting down seconds, affixed within the plant.

“Rendelac, what is-”

“Danger!” said Rendelac. “Possibility of an explosive device high!”

Vox stopped talking and started unfurling the vine. Obviously a trap left by Fletch to eliminate him from a distance if the murk didn’t finish him off sooner. With only a moment, he peeled the vine from his leg, jumped, and cursed as the vine reflexively twisted around his arm, pulling the explosive clump of vegetation along with him just a moment before it detonated.

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 117: Morcalan Morse

ANY WORD FROM THE CAPTAIN

Captain Ortega tapped the phrases into the pipe behind the wall panel he’d managed to remove. He was growing more convinced that all of Dyson’s most visible technology was refurbished from other common sources, but less convinced that it was a slapdash job. The pipe had been there as he’d expected, but the panel had been reinforced. Astroguard had written manuals on how to escape from common cell structure designs like this, but the redesign would have been enough to thwart most who only had knowledge from the manual to work with.

As one of the most frequent consultants on the writing of such manuals, however, Ortega was ahead of the curve in the latest trends in escape artistry. He’d almost electrocuted himself on the first three workarounds he attempted, but the fourth allowed the panel to pop out of the wall without, he hoped, tripping any sensors.

NO

The terse reply from the other end was coming either from Ensign Trell, or someone who was very creatively imitating her without any difficulty. Ortega had tapped instructions on the bar that would have been audible to anyone in a mostly silent room, and he’d used some of the most common universal code patterns, ones derived from the ancient Morse Code patterns from Earth’s military and naval history. Trell had responded after he’d been repeating the instructions for twelve minutes, using the nearly-compatible Morcalan variation on the pattern. Ortega reached for the pipe and tapped again.

JUST RETURNED FROM ANOTHER DOCTOR DEBRIEFING

He thought about the message and resisted the urge to drum his fingers on the pipe. He decided to wait rather than add anything, as early attempts to incorporate STOP or punctuation into the messages using their two different codes had caused issues. Similar issues resulted when he tried to remember how to use Morcalan Morse, and Trell was either unwilling to switch from the Morcalan standard or had never been trained in the more commonly accepted ones, he wasn’t clear on that.

CAPTAIN GONE FOR TEN MINUTES

Ortega nodded and tapped his reply.

ANOTHER ESCAPE ATTEMPT

He resisted the urge to add a regular question mark, even though he was certain that Trell would be able to interpret it.

NO SHE HAD JUST RETURNED FROM ELSEWHERE FOR THAT AND WAS PUT IN THE CELL OPPOSITE FROM MINE BUT NOW SHE IS GONE AGAIN I DONT NOT KNOW WHY

Ortega looked over his shoulder. He was certain that he had a camera pointed at him even if he couldn’t see it, but the empty cells on the other side of the hall were the only things he could see. He reached for the pipe to tap again.

SHE MIGHT HAVE GONE TO ANOTHER DEBRIEFING LIKE MINE TO HELP EXPLAIN THE DOCTOR

WHICH DOCTOR

DOCTOR SILAS ROGERS

SOUL SURVIVOR IS EASIER TO TAP

Ortega smirked. He disagreed, but he was using a slightly different system. Trell was likely just taunting him to kill time.

SOUL SURVIVOR IS NOT AN IMMEDIATE CONCERN I CAN TALK YOU THROUGH ESCAPE IF YOUR CELL IS BUILT LIKE MINE BUT THE SHIP IS DIFFERENT THAN THE ONES IVE PLANNED FOR AND AN ESSENTIAL PART INVOLVES LOSING OUR TAPPING ABILITY

UNDERSTOOD

ASSUMING ALARMS DONT GO OFF WE CAN MEET AT WHAT I HOPE WILL BE A MOSTLY UNUSED CORRIDOR JUNCTION BUT IF ALARMS START WE WONT HAVE THE OPTION

He paused. After a minute, Trell started tapping again.

AFTER ESCAPE WE NEED TO FIND THE CAPTAIN AND SABOTAGE THIS SHIP AND HOPEFULLY DESTROY OTHERS, IN WHICHEVER ORDER IS MOST REASONABLE

Ortega frowned. He didn’t like the idea of destroying an entire ship if people were on board, but Trell could be reasoned with on the fly. Calen probably couldn’t, however, plus the Dyson forces had clearly entered war-time mode, and as such war protocols were on the table. Potentially mind-controlled conscripts weren’t necessarily fair war-time targets, though. With all those considerations on the table, it was also true that his chances of escape would improve with Trell’s assistance. He reached for the bar and tapped it again.

AGREED

Episode 116: Usual Suspect

“Tzak, you remain the only figure held captive with a connection to these crimes,” said Chala. Zack knelt on the ramp that led to the Suzerain’s fire, listening to the translation of her decree and ultimate judgement. It was much like the preamble before being thrown to the trial pit, though Zack could tell, even with the massive language barrier, that the Suzerain was deliberating before speaking instead of reciting well-rehearsed, ritualized phrases. He also had two of the red-scaled guards on either side of him, a very immediate reminder not to step out of line. The Suzerain waited on the far side of the fire instead of slithering around it, and after a long, contemplative pause she issued another series of chirps and hisses.

“Your tale of an assassin who can glide through the air and seeks your destruction is intriguing, but as yet there has been no other witness who can attest to such a creature. The sign of foreknowledge that allowed you to speak the names of two you had never encountered is impressive and in line with the more harrowing tales of the trial pits, but it is also well within the realm of a… the best translation would be ‘a cheap parlor trick.’ The literal translation is ‘charred hashthal meat’ and that loses some something in translation.”

Chala had warned him to refrain from comment, advice he was following. He understood the Suzerain’s point of view: there may be a mystical source of knowledge sufficient for testing personal merit beneath the settlement, but believing every potential murderer who claimed to have mystical information when standing over the slain bodies of two people could set a bad precedent.

“Your trial in the caves has extended to the surface if your words are true,” said Chala in response to more speaking from the Suzerain. “In the event of a lie or a failed challenge, your death will be swift. These two guards will accompany you until this winged murderer is found.”

“If sh-” Zack started. One of the guards swung a mighty fist, a backhanding that provided enough lift and thrust to spin him onto his back, and growled a warning. The Suzerain glared at Zack, willing him to freeze in place. In time she looked at Chala and hissed rapidly.

“She’s telling me… sorry, she’s asking you what you were about to say, and cautions you that death is nearer than you know.”

“I was about to say ‘If she did it,’” he said, narrowing his eyes to shield them from the brightness of the sun in the sky.

“What? Zack, of course she did it.”

“We don’t know that,” said Zack. “I really don’t think she’s a mad killer. She might sincerely wish me dead, but I don’t think she’d hurt anyone else otherwise, even if discovered.”

“Zack, the murder victims were all slashed with some sort of energy weapon, one that you say she carries.”

“True,” said Zack. “I never actually saw her use the scythe in the cave, though. She needs Virellium to activate it. That might’ve just been an issue of timing or luck, but she liked showing it off before. Also, I’m still a bit vague on the distances being described here, but she wouldn’t have had time to kill the person at your forge and then come after me while I was still in the pit.

Chala nodded and spoke to the Suzerain. The large, snake-like being hissed a response.

“If not her, then who?”

Zack thought about the situation. From what he’d seen, the sthenites lacked anything close to the technology required to wield a weapon anything like Nectra’s. He considered the known factors, and an image of a news report came to his mind.

“Assuming the suspects are limited to people in the Nebula Cup… a big assumption if the DMA learns where I am, especially with some of the exotic weapons at work in that place… the only other person with an energy weapon similar to the ones we’re seeing here was the one person who wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place.”

“That’s… isn’t that Nectra again?”

“She wasn’t the first place party crasher, though,” said Zack. “I think we should capture Nectra as well to be on the safe side, but the one person who might fit the location, timing, and weaponry requirements is someone who’s needed a dedicated hunt for a long time. Tell the Suzerain that the actual murderer might be The Phantom Matador.”

Episode 115: Rupture In Negotiations

The Kinetic Kuiper zipped back and forth with a dedication that might look playful or meditative to someone unfamiliar with the quirks of petrakinetic thought patterns. From on top of the asteroid, Carmen Shift sat and watched the Dyson vessel as it saved the crews of the ships that she and the other two racers had disabled. She drummed her fingers seventeen times before her ride would suddenly stop and change direction without any noticeable impact on her or the other items scattered across the rock’s surface.

“Carmen?” said Vince Flashman, his voice crackling to life on their shared channel while he sat on top of his asteroid.

“Yeah?”

“You’re pacing.”

Carmen stopped drumming her fingers. The asteroid slowed, reduced its velocity to a third of its speed, and gently shifted direction again. The inertia hit Carmen properly and knocked her onto her side, scattering many of her snacks but none of the tools in her protected tool box. She reasserted her control over the gravitic and inertic forces at play on herself to prevent further rolling, and felt the Kinetic Kuiper slow to a “halt” (ignoring, for a moment, the difficulty in ever truly halting in a perpetually moving galaxy while in orbit around a planet and staying near an enemy vessel.)

Carmen stood, readjusted her headset, and looked back at the ship.

“No I’m not.”

“You were, though.”

“Vince, don’t-”

“Space-time: danger: wear a hole.”

“Xorn’Tal, can you be serious for once in your life?”

“Hey now,” said Vince. “He’s just trying to lighten the mood. Listen, Carmen… I think they’re stalling.”

“Obviously.”

“Carmen, do you have oxygen reserves?”

“Of course I do.”

“How long since you checked them?”

“My crew handles that,” she said.

“But you know where they are, right?”

“I’m literally in arms’ reach of a shielded supply box that has five pieces of hardware that’ll turn my racing gear into a heated space suit with enough air to get me home and back if I need it, and there’s an emergency shelter in one of the caves inside.”

“Are you sure the shangmere didn’t damage the shelter?”

“Yes!” she said, certain that Nectra wouldn’t have caused physical harm to a structure like that while escaping. She mostly stayed away from that part of the asteroid. Mostly.

“And it won’t be structurally dangerous because of all the other damage you’ve-”

“Vince, just shut up. I know what I’m doing. We’ll retreat when we’re good and ready.”

“Status: ready,” said Xorn’Tal. “Preference: together.”

Carmen winced.

“Look, Xorn… that’s nice and all, but you don’t have to stay out here if you don’t want to.”

“Carmen: crazy. Carmen: remains, Xorn’Tal: remains.”

“I don’t want you to-”

“Carmen, we’re not going to force you to go back, but-”

“Yeah, just try that.”

“-But, we can’t just leave you out here. You’ll get blasted by that ship, and there should be someone around to carry your ride back to civilization. Now look, Xorn’Tal can last longer than any of us because of how he breathes and because of his… well, because he’s turned his ride into a greenhouse, but we’re going to have to do something about breathing sooner or later.”

“Later,” said Carmen. “I’m stayin’ here as long as I can.”

A crackle over their headsets announced a hail from the Dyson vessel. Carmen switched to the channel.

“We’ve ret-”

“Ready to leave Mandrake alone yet?”

“…We’ve retrieved our wounded. You were… unexpectedly capable. Fortunately, the injuries were manageable. As such, we have considered your terms and are prepared to make the following allowance: you may remain near Mandrake, and civilian approved locations within Veskid’s system. You are not permitted to interfere with us or our mission in any way, and we will continue to use this space. The conquest of Veskid has already begun, and we will not concede to guerrilla tactics to maintain an inferior status quo.”

Carmen tapped her foot, thinking.

“Carmen?” said Vince, his voice coming through a different line. Carmen silenced her connection to the Dyson vessel.

“I’m thinking.”

“Carmen, that’s not a bad offer. You get to stay here, and they’ll probably ignore you.”

“I know,” she said. “My friend just really wants this a secret…”

“Carmen, I don’t think a skydiver’s really got anything to worry about if they’re seen by an invading army.”

“He’s n… never done this before. I’m more worried about him being in danger. I need to stay safe.”

“Haggle?” said Xorn’Tal.

“What?” asked Carmen.

“Price: too low?” said Xorn’Tal. “Offer: N equals shuttle. Accept deal equals deal plus N.”

“Hey now,” said Carmen. “Hey, yeah, yeah that could work! Nice thinking, Xorny!”

“Name: Xorn’Tal.”

“Yeah, sure, fine. A shuttle gets me down, allows some isolation, I don’t crash my asteroid…”

“I wouldn’t expect a yes,” said Vince. “On the other hand, they’ve been playing with their cards on the table so far, I don’t think it’d hurt to ask.”

“Gotta be something good about the plan if we all like it,” said Carmen. She reopened the channel to the ship.

“Okay, we like your terms, they’re almost good enough. We want a shuttle.”

“Why do you want a shuttle? You’ve got asteroids.”

“Yeah, we’ve been out here for a few hours. Try thinking about something for six hours straight and tell me that you couldn’t use a break room.”

“Understood. Understand that a shuttle represents a serious investment, and we do have resource concerns, but we can see what-”

From an empty region of space just off the port of the ship, blasts of laser fire hammered into the vessel’s hull.

“What? Shift, if this is-”

Another volley of fire impacted the Dyson vessel, and the voice went silent. Repeated bursts of fire continued shooting the ship until, with a final blast, the entirety of it exploded. Carmen stared at the now expanding cloud of smoke, debris, and plasma fire and almost forget to propel her asteroid back from the oncoming energy wave.

When she reached a safe distance, she peered through the void and saw the shattered remains of what had been a Dyson ship. Moments later, another ship, also bearing the Dyson logo, fizzled into existence, appearing where nothing had been before.

“Surrender, oh greatest of the petrakinetic racers!” shouted a bombastic, tenor voice. “You are now prisoners of The Soul Survivor!”

Episode 114: Bite of the Red Guard

The sthenite shrieked again at the sight of Zack, standing over the corpses.

“This isn’t,” Zack started, honestly not sure where he was going with it. He looked at the two sthenites on the ground, and at the scorch marks that were left behind by their assailant.

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha!” he said again, holding his hands up in what he hoped was an acceptable sign of non-aggression. The sthenite slithered backward, a visual that Zack hadn’t been prepared to see. It tilted its head like a nervous bird.

“Shyese tzanara,” Zack said, slowly pointing to the two corpses just as the overseer had said, “Dojurbu Hansha.”

He thought about the situation. Was he actually pointing at the first dead sthenite that he had seen when he pointed at Dojurbu? Or the sthenite that he hoped was Dojurbu?

Another Sthenite rounded the ledge, and began climbing up the rocky path. Zack saw the red scales and cobra-like hood that he’d come to recognize as common among the physical laborers and guards. The new sthenite saw an alien in a green trench coat and horrible hat standing where and how a murderer might stand. The guard hissed and jumped at Zack, baring its fangs. Zack tried to dodge, but was too slow to avoid the lightning-fast strike.

***

“Zack!”

Zack coughed and sat up, feeling a sense of overwhelming dread.

“What?”

“Zack, I need to talk to you.”

He blinked. The light was dim. He was lying on a small bed made from woven reeds. Was he in a hut? Someone was sitting next to him.

“Chala?”

“Zack, how did you know Dojurbu and Hansha’s names?”

“How… the strange… thing that managed the trial, she told me what their names would be.”

Chala didn’t answer. Zack’s eyes were starting to adjust. It was definitely her.

“She told me that those would be the names of the first two sthenites I saw when I left the cave. I didn’t know that they’d be… I really don’t know why all this is happening. Someone followed me into the trial pit.”

“Not possible. The location of the exit is a secret to those who haven’t finished the trial.”

“She has a way of finding me. She’s an alien.”

“So are you. So am I.”

“No, like… not a sthenite and not a human. She’s a shangmere, and she’s got a way of tracking me.”

“How?”

“She says that it tracks Virellium Force Energy, and anyone who’s come in contact with it.”

Chala stood and walked to a wall. Zack dimly registered the image of her leaning against it, but she was right at the edge of his vision.

“The phrase you said to the one who found you with the bodies? It saved your life. She saved your life, I mean. She told the guard what you said, and stopped him during the venom injection. She said that you knew the names and that it was important.”

“That’s a relief.”

“There was a third murder,” she said. Zack tensed and stood, ignoring the sudden headache that standing caused after his venom injection.

“A third murder?”

“Someone else was killed in the same manner as Dojurbu and Hansha. She was killed in front of my hut in a different village. A messenger arrived to report it.”

“Do they think I killed her as well?”

“She died while you were in the trial pit. It lends some credence to the mystery surrounding your appearance outside the trial pit, a place you shouldn’t have found until much later.”

“The attacker in the trial pit, she wants to kill me.”

“And others as well, it seems. All while trying to find you.”

“That doesn’t make sense, though,” said Zack. “Why would she track me to your home in a different village?”

“Because of my forge,” she said, just as Zack’s eyes finished adjusting. “It’s where I keep all of my supplies. Everything I work on. And, unfortunately, where I’ve hidden a substantial amount of Virellium.”

Episode 113: Tight Squeeze

Zack surged through the cramped tunnel toward the light ahead, thinking of it as the alley from his dream. Alleys were, as many had pointed out to him, his natural habitat, and he couldn’t deny a certain understanding of how they worked. His understanding of caves was shakier, but he trusted that Nectra would be as unfamiliar with them as he was with jungles and hoped that the shangmere wouldn’t be able to keep up without any real room to use her wings.

He rounded a corner and expected to see an opening that would lead him to the outside world, but instead saw the overseer of the trials, the primitive-looking Sthenite illuminated from above. She smiled as Zack stared, confused.

“I… thought you were sunlight. The way out. I thought that-”

“You don’t have long,” said the overseer of the trials, her voice not quite matching the shapes her mouth made.

“Until the exit? Or until Nectra catches me?”

“Either. But I meant the first. Your language delights again. Zack… Tzak… I am sorry that your trial did not go as planned. The alien that I plucked from your mind found you. She was more immediate than I guessed.”

“So what does this mean for the trial?”

“Oh, you are not done,” she said. “But as a sign that you are not leaving without my consent… Dojurbu and Hansha are the names of the first two Sthenites that you will see when you leave the cave.”

“So I… tell them that I know their names and they assume that you told me?”

“No, but tell the third Sthenite you see.”

“I don’t speak th-”

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha. Say that and gesture to the two you see.”

“You sure I can remember that?”

“No, but you have a remarkable mind for detail. I trust that you will at least warrant investigation if you do your best. The trial will continue beyond the cave. Dojurbu and Hansha will take you as their messenger. Go.”

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha?”

“Yes. Go.”

Zack didn’t waste time. He ran forward, looked over his shoulder, and almost imagined that he saw Nectra gently leap into the light just before it went dark. A fainter light was visible in the sudden darkness, one just around another corner.

Zack turned and resisted the urge to shout in triumph at the sight of a narrow crack in the wall with light pouring in. He raced for it, slowed as he neared it, and turned sideways. He gently started moving through the crack.

“Pretty tight in there, isn’t it?”

Zack took a deep breath and started moving faster. How close was Nectra? How long was this crack leading outside? He didn’t have the room to turn his head.

“Zack, I’ll catch you sooner or later,” she said, almost pleading. “This really isn’t doing anything except making it harder for me. I understand that that might be what you want… I wouldn’t want to just wait for someone to kill me either… but you can’t win, you know that right? I can track you anywhere and, okay, I’m not some super assassin trained on a distant planet like the DMA’s agents, but I won’t stop. They’re only worried about money. That’s not me.”

Zack ignored the shangmere’s voice. She was a good four feet behind him, probably just starting to move into the fissure. He picked up speed and shimmied the last foot out, taking a deep breath as he stepped out of a rock wall and onto a pleasant jungle trail.

Two sthenites, one with purple scales and feathers and the other with green scales and feathers, were on the ground, dead, with clean, cauterized wounds along their chests and limbs. Zack stared at the two corpses in shock.

“Dojurbu?” he said. “Hansha?”

A high pitched shriek, like a bird of prey declaring its kill, was accompanied by the sound of a basket dropping to the floor. Zack looked up to see another sthenite, green scaled, staring at him from along the trail with a woven basket on the ground, dropped in the shock from what it had just seen. Zack took a shaky breath.

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha?”

Episode 112: March From The Trial Pit

Zack knew the situation was wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on why. He shambled along in the state between dreaming and waking, still trying to discern why it felt like someone was holding his arm behind his back. The path was long and narrow and dark, just like his dream had been.

“Not far now, Mister Gamma. This place is making my head swim. Do you ever say that?”

“Nnh?”

“The shangmere don’t say that. We don’t do a lot of swimming, though it’s really fun when we do. Our idioms are a little different. I love human idioms, though. And most of human society. I was really excited to move to the Angelor Republic proper. Humanity gets a lot of flak out there, but it always seemed so nice to me. It’s like your race is made up of social structures that clumsily get by on nothing more but dumb luck and mishmashes of traditions and quick-fixes, but all the individuals are so suave and refined.”

“Hhng… suave? Y… you think humans…”

“Well, not ALL of them, obviously.”

Zack shook his head. The conversation was pulling him out of his walking dream. He wasn’t in an alley, he was in a cave. The trial pit’s cave was stretching before him, and he could just see light ahead. His hands weren’t restrained behind him, they were just held in place.

“I mean, now that I’ve lived in the Angelor Republic for this long I know that even humans have their downsides. In some ways that makes you better, though, don’t you think? I mean, perfection would be boring. Everyone has to have their little quirks and failings, and humans pick ones that are-”

“Nectra? Is that… you’re Nectra.”

“Yes?”

So he hadn’t dreamed Nectra. He was really being escorted by the shangmere.

“I don’t mean to… I mean, I know you want to kill me, but could you have waited until after I was done in the trial pit? It’s really important that I finish this, and I’ve got a feeling that there’s some kinda penalty for taking a mulligan on spirit quests.”

“Oh, that’s what you were doing? Okay, that explains a lot. Zack, this probably isn’t the right time, but you know that you live the best life, right? I mean, you get to do so many fun things.”

“Yeah, try it for yourself some time, I think you wouldn’t like it so much. Listen, I-”

“And you’ve always got the perfect comeback lines. Do you think that if I wasn’t out to kill you and otherwise imprisoned for life that we might’ve been able to be friends?”

“People like me don’t get many friends, but I guess anything’s possible. Look, Nectra, you’ve gotta let me go back there.”

“One thing at a time, Zack. I need to kill you first.”

“You’re not thinking straight.”

“I’m not craz… well, maybe the fumes down here are getting to me.”

“Right,” said Zack. “And even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t think you were crazy. You’re a little eccentric, sure, and I think you’re a very… emotional person, but I don’t think you’re crazy.”

Nectra stopped walking Zack forward. She leaned into Zack’s field of view, and the almost-human, vaguely bat-like face slid into his peripheral vision.

“I think that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“Well-”

“You really think I’m not crazy?”

Zack stared into the wide, uncanny eyes of the shangmere and gave the question some serious thought.

“I really don’t,” he said. “You sound… well, you sound like someone who could probably stand to talk to some therapists about everything you’re going through, but I’ve met insane people before and you’re not like them.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Sure, I’ve only known you for…I lost track of time in there, about half a day maybe? So, I’m just working on first impressions here, and I’m not what you’d call an expert, but I don’t get an ‘insane’ vibe off you. You seem more desperate than anything.”

“Oh, thanks!” she said. “Zack, that really means a lot. Really. I know I’ve already said this, but I’m really going to regret killing you.”

“Then don’t kill me!”

“It’s not that simple.”

“I think it is,” said Zack. “Look, you’ve gone through some desperate times, I can tell that just by looking at you, so you’re jumping at some sort of straw to prove that you’re innocent of… something, I wasn’t clear on that whole situation, but the fact is the option you’ve been given is clearly immoral and probably illegal. I’ve helped a lot of people who wanted to turn to options like that… and believe me, some of my clients have been in pretty dire problems… but in my experience, when you’ve been thrown a bone like that to get out of trouble, you’ve not been given anything good to work with. You’ll keep your head above water, and maybe someday you’ll even get out of the jam you’re in, but you’ll have sidestepped a better life.”

“Wow,” said Nectra. “You might have a point. Was that off the cuff?”

“Well-”

“That’s another human idiom I like. We don’t usually wear the kinds of sleeves that humans do, which means we don’t really have shirt cuffs, so-”

“Yeah, it’s a great idiom. So, why don’t you let me go?”

“Oh, Zack, I wish I could,” she said, her eyes twisting into a recognizable expression of genuine sadness. Zack wondered if shangmerian eyes worked like that, or if she’d picked up the habit from humans.

“Why can’t you?”

“It’s great that you believe everything you just told me,” she said, leaning her head back so that she was entirely behind Zack again. “It makes me think of the great heroes of human books and movies. But do you really think civilization works that way? From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t.”

“It does if enough people work to make it work that way,” said Zack, feeling the gentle push to begin walking forward again.

“I think you’re right,” she said. “But that’s the fatal tragedy of humanity. I don’t think enough people will ever work together to make it something that sweepingly epic and beautiful. Human society can’t exist without its flaws, after all. It’d get boring otherwise.”

“Don’t make a joke to dodge actually thinking about the topic.”

“I’ve thought a lot about this, Zack, I was in prison for a while. And right now, killing you is the only way that I can prove that I’m innocent and that my research works.”

Zack sighed.

“All right. Nectra, I’m really sorry.”

“About wh-”

Zack jumped forward, dragging Nectra with him. He ducked and somersaulted, pulling Nectra into a whirl as she opened her wings to try to stop the pull of the air. The loss of momentum caused Zack to land on his back halfway through the twist, on top of Nectra.

The surprised shangmere, having just had the wind knocked out of her, loosened the grip of her clawed hands enough for Zack to pull his wrists away. He jumped up and ran down the corridor as fast as he could, heading toward the light.

“No!” she shouted. “No, don’t go! Zack! Get back here! I’ll find you! You can’t hide from me, I have a tracker!”

Zack ignored Nectra’s betrayed cries and moved quickly. He didn’t know how fast she could run, but wasn’t going to wait to find out.

Episode 111: Westminster Quarters

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

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

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

“You’re sure about this alley, then?”

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

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

Zack turned left, ignoring the store.

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

Four more notes echoed through the alley.

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

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

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

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

“Shut up.”

“Did you help Azar?”

Zack winced, and everything went dark.

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

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

“Then tell me about Azar.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, who are you?” said the voice.

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

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

“Hello again, Tzak.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not alone,” said Zack.

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

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

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

Something was wrong.

“You’re not here,” said Zack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“N-” he said, feeling very ill.

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

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