Tag Archives: Azurebacks

Episode 147: Heed ‘Em

Zack coughed and stopped pushing through the underbrush. The heat of the jungle and the soft soil would have wearied him on the best of days, and today was worse than normal. Nectra glided back to his position from up ahead and watched him hacking and wheezing between the alien vegetation.

“Are you okay? You need to sit down for a bit?”

“Nah, I’m good,” said Zack. “I’ve just gotta stop smoking.”

“You smoke?”

“No, but I could pick it up. Any sight of the Lusca Vine?”

“The what?”

Zack stared at Nectra before shaking his head.

“Sorry, I mean… any sight of The Phantom Matador?”

“Yes!” she said, excited. “There’s a clearing ahead. The tracker points right to it, and he’s sitting right there, with a campfire. I think he’s ready. Is this running someone to ground? Did we run someone to ground?”

“I think we’ve gotta catch him first before we’ve run him to ground,” said Zack. “Idioms were never my strong suit. I think he’s run to ground, though. Maybe. Don’t the shangmere have sayings like that? ‘Fly him to web’ or something?”

“A few!” said Nectra. “Though we don’t have that one. Maybe we should? Flying doesn’t really come up very often as a hunting thing for us. I think the martial artists talk about it more?”

“Shouldn’t you know about that, then?”

“Why?”

“Well, you seem pretty martially artistic.”

“Oh, thanks! I’m not, though. I’m really not. This is just a hobby, and I’m more interested in the balancing part of it. Helps keep me focused!”

“Remind me to never cross an actual shangmere fighter, then,” said Zack, clearing his throat. “You’re pretty good from what I’ve seen. Now let’s… keep moving on. I’ve gotta make sure not to cough on my way into that clearing. I want to make sure he’s in my sights before he even knows that I’m there.”

***

“Your plan was sound,” said Vox, walking along the gentle trail that left the city of the Azurebacks. “And, in truth, there were some rumblings that Rendelac was able to translate that sound as if they relate to Zack Gamma. How did you plan on speaking to the Sthenites, though?”

Igneous reached to her back and moved a small, brown and red pack, one that Vox had assumed to be an oddly colored patch of rock that protruded from a shoulder. She opened the pack and a wave of cool mist billowed from within.

“I have basic supplies. A translation device is included. I don’t know if I could’ve picked up enough dialog for it to work, but I was willing to try.”

“Hmm. Well, fortunately for you, Rendelac and I were welcomed to the conversation. There was an instance of someone, referred to as Star Prey. This word might have applied to myself if Fletch hadn’t tried to detonate me. This Star Prey has been accepted by someone from another world, and may be facing a sort of trial to determine worth by the society. If this other Star Prey is, in fact, Zack Gamma, then we may have found our prey.”

“Our first target is Fletch,” said Igneous, sliding the pack over her back again. “Don’t forget that we need to find her first, Vox.”

“You think I’ll delay catching Zack for your whim?”

“I’m gonna die here, and you want money,” said Igneous. “For right now, I think your goal is closer to being a whim than mine. Humor me here.”

“Our deal did not specify that-”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “Binding oneself to the letter of the law leaves you subject to the letters of those whose good will you may later seek.”

“Yeah,” said Igneous. “Heed ‘em.”

Vox stopped walking. He reached into his own pack and pulled out Rendelac. The thin computer’s eye was glowing orange.

“Don’t think finding an ally will dissuade me any further.”

“You are free to act as you will, Vox Cul-Dar. My advice remains just as valid whether or not others support it.”

Vox frowned and pushed Rendelac back into his pack.

“And I am just as free to ignore the advice.”

“You carry around a philosophy computer just so that you can ignore it?” said igneous. “Someone’s gotta teach you a few lessons about packin’ light.”

“Rendelac’s teachings are often sound. When they apply to my situation, they are very worthwhile.”

“Fancy computer like that probably thinks what it has to say applies to your life just fine. Don’t blame it for doin’ its job, Vox.”

“Your opinion on what I do with my cultural heritage has been noted. Regardless, perhaps I was hasty. We will seek both Zack Gamma and Fletch. I expect this partnership to endure as we deal with both targets, though. I won’t have you abandoning me once we reclaim your Teles.”

“Right,” said Igneous. “Perish the thought.”

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The Azureback Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it?”

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

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

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

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

“You might say that,” said Igneous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 134: Information, Influence, and Infamy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rendelac’s eye changed to orange.

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

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

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

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

“But not all of it.”

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

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

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

“How can one have knowledge without information?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.