Tag Archives: arrow

Episode 92: Haktorash

Zack tried ducking, too late for it to have done any good. Chala’s arrow sailed past his ear, and collided with something just behind him. Zack spun and saw a towering creature, like a centipede magnified to incredible size and pushing its way out of the earth. The segmented arms spasmed painfully, reacting to the arrow embedded between plates of its exoskeleton. Zack jumped from it and toward his dropped pistol as one of the arms lashed, an instant too slow.

He scooped up the Purcellian striker and took a better look at the creature. He saw other injuries on the thing, scars and scratches along with some still-protruding arrow shafts and larger pieces of wood… nothing as advanced as Chala’s arrow, however.

He looked at Chala and was surprised to see her running, furiously covering the grass of the clearing and heading for a tree line. He turned back, but the beast was gone. The clearing grew eerily silent apart from the distant noise of insects and Chala’s receding footfalls. A large hole in the ground was the only sign that the creature had ever been there.

Time froze. Part of Zack’s brain was arguing against the evidence of his own eyes, rationalizing that nothing so large could move so quickly or quietly. Another part of his brain was screaming, furiously, that whatever he’d just seen COULD move that quickly and quietly, and was likely doing so right now. Why was Chala, who seemed at home in this dangerous environment, running after a successful hit? Time started to unfreeze and slowly picked up speed as the shouting part of Zack’s brain gradually overruled the rational, confused part.

He ran. He followed Chala. Something large and heavy slammed into the ground behind him. It continued slamming in a long, rumbling roll. He risked a look over his shoulder and saw the creature falling like a tree, its arms prepared to grab and slice and a nearing pincer-ringed maw opening wide. It was falling faster than he could run.

Zack screamed and jumped to the side, too-late realizing what evolution had made the creature realize millions of years earlier: you could crush more prey beneath you if you could change the direction of your fall. It twisted at a segment in its armor, altering the vector of its descent to match Zack’s attempted zig-zag.

Zack fell on his back and reflexively lifted the hand holding his pistol. He pulled the trigger and a surge of energy blasted up and into the monster. The creature shrieked and reared back, more surprised than wounded. Zack didn’t hesitate to clamber to his feet. He was too slow.

Denied its chance at crushing its prey, the creature snapped its head forward toward the fleeing detective. Zack never knew how close the jaws came, running for the thick collection of trees ahead of him. He saw, for the second time in less than thirty seconds, Chala staring at him, pulling back her arm, and releasing an arrow. Again it sailed past Gamma, this time striking the beast in its mouth.

Zack ran past Chala, made it almost a dozen feet into the tangle of vegetation, and tripped over a vine. He fell onto the ground, looked up, and saw Chala staring into the clearing. He slowly got to his feet, looked behind her, and saw an empty field. Once again, it had softly and suddenly vanished away.

“What was THAT?” he asked.

“Haktorash,” said Chala, almost reverently. “It roughly translates to ‘Phantom Judge.’ Last year an industrialist from Veskid wanted to name it The Boojum, but fortunately it killed him before he could get the venom he wanted from it.”

“Shouldn’t we keep running?”

“It won’t follow us into the trees,” she said. “I don’t know why. I think the roots give it trouble when they get thick enough. It’s an incredible creature, really… logically I know there must be more than one of it, but every time one is seen it still has all the scars and injuries from the warriors who’ve failed to kill it.”

“Maybe there are dozens of them and they’ve all got their own collection of black eyes. Has anyone ever really cataloged each injury on it to make sure they’re the same each time?”

“I think the guy last year did, but his data would’ve been lost on his ship when it went down in Swamp Savage, grabbed by a noose tree. It’s probably still there if you want to go look. Keep away from its gallows vines, though, they’ve got a longer reach than you might guess.”

“I think I’m fine,” he said. “Like I said, I’m only here a few hours, a day at most.”

“And like I said, you don’t have that kind of time. Although you might’ve just gotten lucky.”

“How?”

“Haktorash is the Phantom Judge,” said Chala. “In some ways it’s the measure of evolutionary adaptability, in others it’s the measure of a warrior. It attacked us. We survived.”

“You survived,” said Zack. “I got lucky.”

“Luck is part of survival. The Sthenites acknowledge the favor of fate as a trait that can make a good warrior, though it’s impossible to train for it or rely upon it. Luck means you live, at least for today. And I live because of a little less luck, and a little more skill. We both left our marks on it, you from an energy blast and me from an arrow. Here’s hoping I’m lucky enough for at least one of those arrows to stick in it…”

“How’s that lucky?”

“It’ll bring prestige,” she said. “I’m an outsider. I could claim that I hit Haktorash and survived, but no one would believe me on my word alone. My arrows, though, are unique on this world. No one who sees Haktorash with an arrow like that in it could doubt that the arrow came from my bow.”

“Nice,” said Zack. “What’s it mean if the arrow doesn’t last, though?”

“Nothing for me, it’d be about the same as telling a big fish story. It would be bad for you, though.”

“Why?”

“Because then it looks like I’m just trying to protect a member of my former tribe,” she said. “If the arrow doesn’t last, you will be no longer judged fit to survive by Haktorash and will once again be valid for the hunt.”

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Episode 91: Of Sthenites and Strawberries

Zack stared at the sharp tip of the arrow. It was a very clean cut, and metallic, made by some factory. It had a realness to it that dwarfed the now-distant threat of the Desperate Measures Agency. The woman pointing it at him was serious… he either needed to get off the world immediately, which wasn’t an option yet, or get way from her.

”Starprey?” he said, repeating the word she’d just called him. The meaning was obvious, but he needed a few moments for his brain to spin into gear.

“It’s what the Sthenites call offworlders,” she said. “They come from the stars, and because of what they’ve done and tried to do before they’ve earned the penalty of being hunted for sport. Allegedly for food if we’re talking about the Azurebacks, but they say a lot of things about those people.”

“So when you kill me, you won’t be handing me over for dinner then, Miss…?”

“Chala,” she said.

“Never heard that name before.”

“It used to be Charlotte, but Chala sounded more like the names they have here, so it’s what I go by.”

“How long’ve you been working on gaining their trust?”

“A long time now,” said Chala. “Not really your concern.”

“Where do you get the arrows?”

Chala raised an eyebrow.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s a strange arrow.”

“It’s a common design.”

“I’m sure if I went to a sporting goods store on Veskid I could buy some just like that, yeah,” said Zack. “But you say you’ve been here a while, long enough to gain trust from societies that don’t trust offworlders. Did you stockpile a huge number of arrows before you came here, or do you have some way of making them? A little shop or machine that can make fresh ammunition?”

“Arrows can be retrieved and repaired,” she said.

“Which would be a lot easier with a shop. Do the, uh… Sthenites? Do the Sthenites approve of industry as long as it’s small and on the personal level?”

“Of course,” she said. “They know the value of technology, they’re not stupid. They have metalworking, wheels, written language, agriculture, everything a culture needs to thrive and advance.”

“So when you land and set up a place for yourself, they see your machinery and think of you as… what, a blacksmith?”

“Let’s not focus on me anymore, let’s get back to you. Can you, or can you not, call for your ride now?”

“No,” said Zack. “There’s no network here, and she won’t be back in range for a few hours at the earliest.”

Chala frowned, as if thinking over options. Then she released the arrow.

Much earlier, on another world…

Harold Zamona came to the slow realization that he was waking up.

His head hurt. He didn’t know how a pain could be dull and distant while also feeling strong and immediate. He lifted his hands to his face and felt the strange sensation of metal against his forehead, a reminder that the gauntlets were still, as always, a part of his life. It was fortunate that his incredible muscular strength also came with increased physical durability; even with the gauntlets, such idle motions would have caused many self-inflicted calamities otherwise.

He could smell strawberries? And dust. Where was he?

“I think he’s coming out of it,” said a voice, a man.

“I’m going on the record… again… as saying this is a bad idea,” said another man.

“We know,” said a woman. “We’re ready if it is.”

Harold shook his head and, somehow, forced his eyes open. It was hazy and shadowy, but things were coming into focus. Soon, two shadows in front of him congealed into the forms of a man and a woman, standing in a room filled with stacks of crates and boxes. The woman was wearing an outfit that reminded him of a nun’s habit crossed with a futuristic knight’s armor, and the other was wearing a green trench coat with a matching hat that, given its antenna, could probably connect to any local networks and might have its own computerized functions.

He felt a surge of adrenaline and almost jumped at the two, but resisted the urge when he realized that the first was pointing some sort of energy rifle at him, and the second was lowering two Purcellian striker pistols his way.

“Sister Barris and Zack Gamma,” he said. “The lawyer who would help Azar when no one else would, and the investigation and protection specialist who was hired by an unknown client right when Barris and Azar needed to drop off the grid. This is good.”

Barris exhaled, as if she’d been worried.

“Why?” she asked. “I’m glad you think it’s good, but it doesn’t look like things are going your way.”

“It means I didn’t tear down the wall of that laundromat for nothing,” he said. “You’ve gotta make quick decisions in this line of work, and it’s always good to know you made the right one.”

“Doesn’t look right from where we’re standing,” said Zack. “You’ve put us in an awful position here, frosty.”

“Frosty?” said Harold.

“As in frozen,” said Zack. “You’re the Iceberg.”

“I’m not anymore,” said Harold. “It’s just Harold now. Or Harry. They might call me for another special night, but the wrestling life’s effectively behind me. Where’s Azar?”

“Why should we answer any questions?” asked Barris. “You’re the one who invaded our hideaway.”

“I heard three voices,” said Harold. “And there’s two of you. Who’s the third person? I assume it’s Azar, but if I’m wrong, just let me know.”

Zack and Barris shared a quick glance.

“So… Azar’s here, then,” said Zamona. He started to stand, but Zack took a more definite aiming stance.

“Stay right there,” he said. “Stay right on the floor, or Barris and I send you back to dreamland, and this time you won’t even get the chance to make a return trip.”

“Why did you bring me here, then?” asked Zamona. “Why not end me at the laundromat? Or just leave me there while you made your getaway?”

“The police would have found you,” said Barris. “Questions would be asked, charges filed, and anyone who was looking for us who wasn’t already hot on your trail would get that much closer.”

“Then drop me off on a park bench or side alley on the way to wherever we are instead of bringing me the whole way,” he said.

“Believe me, I wanted to,” said Zack.

“Then why didn’t you?”

“I asked them not to,” said another voice.

Harold turned his head. There was a small passage leading away from the dusty room, a hallway obscured by shadows and a stack of boxes. What were all the boxes in this room for? A dark face was peaking out from the hallway, a scruffy, grizzled face that had seen a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice. Azar.

Zack rolled his eyes.

“Would you mind?” he said. “Get out of here. We’re trying to keep you away from the dangerous bounty hunter.”

“We’re not getting anywhere,” said Azar. “Harold, is it? How did you find where Gamma and Barris were keeping me?”

“I checked with the DMA to find likely agents who were working protection jobs,” he said. “Worked out that most of ‘em weren’t protecting you, and narrowed down the remainders until Gamma was the most likely person to follow.”

“See?” said Gamma. “Exactly what I told you he would’ve done. Now, can we please shoot him and follow his suggestion of leaving him somewhere that we aren’t hiding?”

Harold tensed. The lawyer and the detective were both good shots from what he remembered, but they needed focus. If he moved quickly he could probably disarm one of them without the other shooting him. That might buy him all the leverage he needed to reach Azar and escape. He prepared to leap…

“Wait,” said Azar. “One other question for him. How much is Bristlecorp offering for me?”

“A lot,” said Zamona. “Anyone who finds you is not only going to retire, but they’ll retire well. They could buy a small planet without hurting their savings.”

“That’s a lot of money,” said Azar. “What if I offered to pay you instead?”

Harold smirked.

“I know you’ve got a lot of cash,” said Zamona. “I don’t think you want to pay me as much money as it would take.”

“Maybe not in a lump sum,” said Azar. “What if I paid you in employment? Mister Gamma and Sister Barris are wonderful at what they do, but extra protection couldn’t hurt.”

“My rate’s pretty high,” said Iceberg.

“Hang on,” said Zack. “Azar, a word? Barris, keep an eye on Harry there.”

Zack walked to the hallway, stepping around the strawberry-scented cartons. He leaned conspiratorially toward Azar.

“I get what you’re trying to do here,” said Zack. “I really do. But here’s the thing: we’re not on the same tier as those three punks who tried to jump you in the alley anymore.”

“They weren’t punks,” said Azar. “They were financially troubled, and desperate for any way out.”

“Right, okay. But Harold Zamona isn’t destitute. He’s not poor. He’s still making money from merchandising. He might have some financial troubles now and then, a lot of former celebrities do, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard of any. He’s one of the smart ones. People like him aren’t bounty hunters because they need the cash, they’re bounty hunters because they’re bored. And even if I’m wrong? You can’t just pay more than your bounty to every bounty hunter. I know a Virellium Coin is worth a lot of money, and your interest is crazy, but how many until you lose a coin? Twelve? Twenty? Fifty? Eventually the bounty’ll still be on your head, and you won’t have any money to make it worthwhile.”

“I don’t need to pay everyone who comes my way,” said Azar. “And I certainly don’t plan on paying in just money.”

Azar pushed his way past Zack, stepping into the room. Harold looked up, but Barris kept her eyes and her rifle aimed his way.

“I don’t like being on the run,” said Azar. “I don’t want to be enemies. My offer stands. Join me, Harold Zamona. I don’t know how long this will last, but until it’s all over I need protection, and I don’t want to keep secluding myself in places like this.”

“Where are we, by the way?” said Zamona.

“That’s not important,” said Barris and Gamma, simultaneously rushing to speak before Azar could answer.

“The point is, I need someone like you,” said Azar. “I’m making Barris accept a payment comparable to what I’d be paying an overtime lawyer, even though I think she’s just donating it back to that order of hers. Gamma takes a standard DMA fee of the same amount. If you joined our organization here, we might have something to work with. Barris running her legal work, Gamma keeping his eyes and ears open everywhere, and you for more, uh…”

Azar nodded at the gauntlets.

“…you for more hands-on security, if you don’t my mind saying so. These two tell me that you’re quite strong.”

“The strongest,” said Azar. “Sounds like quite an adventure.”

“It hasn’t been yet,” said Azar. “It’s dull waiting around for people to kill me. But I want to stop surviving and start living. If you’re there to protect me, that might be an option.”

The room became quiet. In the distance, the sound of some machinery added to the scent of strawberries in the air.

“Let’s say I said yes,” said Azar. “When would I be starting?”

“Right away,” said Azar.

Episode 87: Starprey

Zack finally extricated himself from the parachute and looked up at Mandrake’s sky. It was a vibrant blue-green, an exciting color that he almost found more appealing than Veskid’s perpetually bluish-gray. He’d heard that one of the reasons humans didn’t like Veskid’s outdoors was because it was a lot like the sky on the ancestral home of Earth, but only if Earth was perpetually overcast and on the verge of bad weather. He’d never been to Earth himself, vast interstellar distances being what they were, but he assumed the people who said things like that knew what they were talking about even if he’d never minded the sky too much one way or another.

He knelt and started folding and packing the robotic parachute back into its compartment, a job that the parachute mostly did itself (making his misadventure on the Phantom Matador’s asteroid more bearable), but it helped him to focus. He was happy, and he wanted to enjoy it.

He’d done it. He’d actually gotten off of Veskid and onto another world. Being declared “dead” by the Desperate Measures Agency was a death sentence for most, but the twelve minute head start Igneous had given him meant he’d set at least two records, one for the amount of time survived and another for distance traveled. He wasn’t in the clear… he’d probably never be in the clear… but he had already beaten the odds. It was good to have a friend like Igneous who’d help him escape instead of collecting the bounty herself, someone he could actually trust even with the temptation of the huge payout. He owed nearly every moment of survival since that night to Igneous and, of course, Carmen.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d have to wait for Carmen, but he felt like he could enjoy it. Carmen was a risk taker, but she was smart enough to know that a calculated risk was better than a wild one. She selected this clearing specifically as his landing site and their rendezvous point, so he felt a certain amount of certainty that as long as he played it smart the local wildlife wouldn’t be killing him.

“Don’t move,” said the voice behind him.

Zack jumped and spun in the air, wildly unholstering one of his pistols. A bolt of black metal, fiberglass and plastic collided with his pistol and knocked it out of his hands. He found himself staring into the face of a human woman who was already putting another arrow into place and drawing it back. She was dressed in greens and browns and purples… camouflage appropriate to the jungles of Mandrake… and glaring at him intently.

“I said don’t move,” she said.

“Where did-”

“Let me talk,” she said. “Why did you come to Mandrake?”

He thought over Carmen’s original suggestion. It was best to keep stories straight between co-conspirators, and the question meant that whoever this archer was, she wasn’t a DMA agent.

“I’m a… thrill seeker?”

“Thrill seeker?”

“I had a chance to parachute from space to a wild jungle world, and… wanted to see the sights until my ride picks me up.”

“Great. Nice job on the landing. You need to leave now.”

“I can’t do that until my ride gets here.”

“Listen,” said the woman, un-notching her next arrow and holding the bow at her side, “there are people on this world who’ve learned not to trust offworlders. Poachers, tomb raiders, industrialists, and other treasure hunters have come here looking for a quick buck, and it’s harmed their cultures. They barely tolerate me. If you don’t get offworld quickly, they’ll show up and try to finish you off because believe me when I say that they already know about you. They watch the skies for reentry, and they can figure out likely descent trajectories.”

“Thanks for the warning,” said Zack, experiencing a familiar feeling. “And the vote of confidence.”

“Vote of confidence?”

“You said they’d try,” he said. “Not that they’d finish me off. You think I’ll survive.”

“Oh, no, that’s not it at all,” she said. “Like I said, I’ve only just barely got their trust. If I think they’re about to show up, then I finish you off to save face.”

Zack took a step back and held up his hands.

“Hey now,” he said. “Hey, take it easy. I came in peace. Let’s not get violent. We’re both humans here, just trying to get by on an alien world, right?”

“Not anymore,” she said, resetting the arrow and aiming it at him again. “I’m a Sthenite now. And you’re Starprey.”