Tag Archives: Carmen Shift

Episode 165: Collision Corps

“They’re definitely panicked,” said Vince Flashman, checking the exterior camera. “Something’s come up. Their hijacked spaceship isn’t a priority anymore.”

“Great,” said Carmen. “We might not have to blast our way out of here after all!”

“Observers: unseen: probability.”

“Good point,” said Vince. “But from what little I can see, anyway… there’s confusion. Some shouting… must’ve been some sort of accident elsewhere on the ship.”

“If there’s a moment when you can’t see anyone looking in our direction, let us know,” said Carmen. She kept her hand on the emergency ramp control, a button located by a terminal with deactivated camera features, likely a parting gift from The Soul Survivor. She wasn’t sure if the all-but robot was still locked in the bridge or had already made some sort of escape that didn’t rely on conventional exits, but she didn’t care. Xorn’Tal waited by the emergency ramp itself, ready to literally leap over and through the exit as it opened. While he was probably the most fragile of the three racers, he looked larger and intimidating, and bullets or lasers searing off his vines was likely to be more temporary than it was for the two humans, things he’d pointed out while volunteering for the most dangerous part of the plan.

“Are we still clear on how this goes down?” asked Carmen.

“Cessation requested: asking.”

“Sorry, Xorn’Tal. Jumpy, I guess.”

“Same here,” said Vince, keeping his eyes on his functional terminal. “Even if no one’s looking, the odds of us getting on unseen a-… no one’s looking, now, now!”

Carmen punched the control button and the ramp began to open, its magnetic seals breaking and pneumatic machinery rapidly lowering a ramp to make a quick hole in the side of their vessel. Xorn’Tal leapt over the dropping plates of hull while they were still articulating into a form acceptable for humans to disembark. The plant-like creature marveled at the complete lack of eyes on the ship, with only a few guards and hangar technicians in a nearby shed-like control room, all frantically looking over a monitor that he couldn’t make out. There were interior weapons trained on the ship, but none were activating, likely thanks to being based on manual controls instead of computerized ones. Xorn’Tal raised a signaling vine, and saw the hallway stretching away from the hangar, just alongside the control room.

Carmen and Vince jumped over the still-lowering ramp, and the three ran, Xorn’Tal only outpacing the two humans by virtue of a head start. As they passed the control room, the sight of an ambulatory tangle of vines and leaves rolling by followed by two humans in brightly colored professional racer garb caught the eye of two soldiers who gaped at the sight. One lifted an arm to point just as they fell out of Carmen’s view.

“They saw us!” she said. “Hurry, find a place to hide!”

“Juncture!” said Xorn’Tal. “Path chosen: left: obfuscate!”

“Left, got it,” confirmed Vince.

The trio neared the branching path where the hallway was joined by another, and immediately collided into the two soldiers who were darting around the corner. The five stumbled over each other, tripped, and sprawled across the ground, with only the multi-limbed Xorn’Tal maintaining some semblance of balance.

“Captain!” shouted one.

“Don’t worry about me, Trell, run!”

The two soldiers leapt to their feet quickly, with one of them surging in the direction the racers had just come from. Carmen noted the oddity of not being immediately apprehended or killed, as Vince shakily rose.

“Hey, lady, we don’t-”

The soldier identified as Captain pulled a rifle from the receptacle at her back and clubbed Vince in the skull, sending the racer staggering.

“I don’t know what moral transgression you committed in your past life to deserve getting in my way now, but know that I’ve neither the time nor inclination to let the one unsecured ship out of my clutches when a hull breach has-”

Xorn’Tal surged toward the soldier. Carmen expected the series of vines to verwhelm the humanoid, but the soldier easily bent her arm into a hook, swiped it forward to clear a massive section of vines, and head-butted the revealed root-like structure that comprised Xorn’Tal’s body. Xorn’Tal tumbled back, rolling onto the floor instead of instantly righting itself due to the soldier’s tentacle-sweep.

“Wait,” said Carmen. “Wait! I think we’re on the same-”

The soldier turned, running back down the hall but stopped at the sight of the second soldier returning.

“They were already moving,” she said. “Something tipped them off to-”

The captain held up a hand to silence the first, turned back to Carmen, and pointed.

“The same what?”

“Team,” said Carmen. “We’re… I think we’re on the same team.”

“Doubtful,” said the captain. “I’m Calen. Captain Calen, of Morcala.”

“Morcala,” growled Vince, standing and massaging his skull. “What are you-”

“That way!” shouted Trell, pointing down the hallway. “Hurry!”

The two soldiers ran around the corner and the racers took less than a second to organize their thoughts and follow behind.

Episode 153: Uncooperative Plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You might’ve.”

“Have you?”

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

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

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

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

“Ship: Nearing,” said Xorn’Tal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You: Anti-Worry?”

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

Episode 146: A Private Offer

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

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

“Don’t. They didn’t hear me.”

“Hmm?”

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

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

“That’s far enough,” said the voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you believe that’s wise?”

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

“Ah. I… have communicated this poorly.”

“Communicated what?”

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

“Hey now, you said now catches.”

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

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

“We are debating semantics.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Carmen-”

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

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

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

“Nice,” said Vince. “Lucky you.”

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 137: The Tharsha Seed

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

“Let us in!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop calling it that!”

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

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

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

“Vent: Air?”

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

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

Xorn’Tal shook.

“Knowledge: known. Vent: Air? Find?”

Carmen tilted her head.

“Why?”

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmen looked at the seed.

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

Episode 130: Escape From The Space Galley!

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

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

“Why?” he said.

“He’ll help the Soul Survivor.”

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

“Will it help us, though?”

“Why wouldn’t it help us?”

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

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

“Do you really think-”

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

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

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

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

“Negative.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s up?” said Tan.

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

“I’ll be right there.”

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

“He seems dazed,” said Vince.

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

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

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

“Wait,” said Tan. “Wait… no…”

“He’s coming to!” said Vince.

“Should we hit him again?”

“Can’t that cause brain damage?”

“Sure, if you don’t do it right.”

“You can do it right?”

“Well, I’ve seen…”

“Movies?”

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

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

“You can do that?” said Vince.

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

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

“Vines: regenerate.”

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

Episode 124: Meeting Renfield

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

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

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

“Wonderful.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello!” he said. “It’s good to mee-”

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

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

“I-”

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

“Is he always this surprised by people?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even so.”

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 121: The Green and Purple Field

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

“Uh, Carmen?”

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

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

“Query: vibrations?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Query: availability?”

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

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

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

“Coward: Fled?”

Another click heralded the arrival of a new participant.

“Hello?” asked Vince.

“Greetingage,” said Xorn’Tal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Xorn?!” Carmen shouted? “Vince?!”

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

“You’re blocking my channel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine risking it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 118: Reverb

The Soul Survivor’s proclamation rang through Carmen’s headset. The remains of the Dyson vessel were starting to drift harmlessly through space, and the other ship was twisting through space to have a more direct view of the three racers. Standing on top of her asteroid, with the green clouds and oceans of Mandrake dominating most of her horizon, there was more violet in the explosion than she expected and the clash of colors was almost disorienting.

“We’re not just gonna take that, are we?” asked Vince, his voice coming through her channel.

“What?”

“They were just about to give us everything you wanted, and then someone claiming to be ‘The Soul Survivor’ just swoops in and blows ‘em out of the sky? I mean, I’m not exactly thrilled with the idea of tangoing with The Soul Survivor… if it’s actually him… but I’m not just gonna surrender.”

“Surrender: never,” said Xorn’Tal.

“I like your thinking,” said Carmen.

“Task: doable?”

“He’s only got one ship,” said Carmen. “One ship that’s the same model as the six we aced before the big one came through to make the deal. It’s not just doable, it’s already done.”

“Might I interject?” came the sonorous voice of the Soul Survivor.

Carmen inhaled and she almost thought she felt the chill of the void just beyond her atmosphere.

“Channel: private,” said Xorn’Tal. “Access: secure.”

“Please,” said The Soul Survivor. “Intelligent schoolchildren hack channels more secure than this for a lark. I am no child, and it’s a minor annoyance for a mind like mine. I’m aware of, and capable of translating, all transmissions using standard technologies. Encryption would need to mimic the background radiation of the universe to pass my notice, and there are more problems with that than a mind like yours could guess. Be sure that I was listening to your conversation even before you were aware of me. Feel free to attack with all of your petrakinetic skill, but know that I have accounted for every eventuality! There is no way that you could defeat me.”

Silence rang over the headset. Carmen looked at Vince’s sleek, almost aerodynamic asteroid, and Xorn’Tal’s vine-covered rock before looking back at The Soul Survivor’s vessel. Total silence finally fell, and Carmen realized that there had been a substance to the space between the silence now and when he finished speaking seconds earlier. He was adding reverb to his channel.

“So, we’re just supposed to believe you?” said Carmen.

“Excuse me?” said The Soul Survivor. Carmen listened again; there was definitely a faint reverberation. If what they said about The Soul Survivor was true, his voice could sound like whatever he wanted. Making his voice generic enough as to be familiar but also echo so faintly that you almost didn’t notice was an intentional choice on his part.

“Why should I believe an interplanetary criminal? You’re a notorious liar. Saying that there’s no hope sounds like a trick.”

“I wouldn’t lie about this, cretin,” said the voice of The Soul Survivor.

“I think this floating scrap-heap just insulted me,” said Carmen.

“I think you’re right,” said Vince.

“What do you say we give him a chance to survive a crash landing on Mandrake?”

“You fools don’t know what you’re in for,” said The Soul Survivor.

“Buddy, neither do you,” said Carmen.

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack scrolled through the time line on the holographic screen, taking note of all of the dates and situations that had been marked in green. Azar sat in the most comfortable chair in his suite and watched Zack manipulating the files while Harold Zamona gingerly attempted to peel an orange without turning it into a pulpy goo. His strength-sapping gauntlets were at full power, but he wasn’t going to take any chances.

“I think we’ve hit most of the big ones,” said Zack. “We need to do more work, but we’re all exhausted. Let’s take the night off and finish in the morning.”

“Finally,” said Zamona. “No offense, Gamma, but I’ve had surgeries more fun than this.”

“Hey, if my work was fun I couldn’t make a living doing it. The movies always skip to the end of the paper trail, but here in the real world we’ve gotta walk over the whole thing. The good news is we got a lot of the paperwork taken care of today, and tomorrow we should be able to knock out the rest and relax before lunchtime.”

“Thank you, Zachary,” said Azar. “I look forward to being done with this once and for all.”

“Me too,” said Zack. “Understand, not all of this will be admissible. The large scale energy projects and focal-point teleportation aspects alone would still be classified since some of that work was through government projects.”

“Of course,” said Azar. “I’ll have to be quiet on my Tidal Lock technologies work until well after I’ve died of old age, if I live that long.”

“We should all be so lucky,” said Zamona, finally tearing a large fragment of peel off of the orange.

“Need any help with that?” asked Zack.

“No, I’ve got it. Azar was able to improve the coordination servos. I still need to be careful, but I want to get through this.”

“Whoever designed his most recent pair of gauntlets did a fine job, but they were clearly working with either time restraints or budget restraints,” said Azar. “Fortunately, neither is a concern for me anymore. If you two will excuse me, I’d like to go to the dining hall and place my order.”

Zack and Zamona nodded, and Azar stood, adjusted his tie in a mirror by the suite’s entrance, and left through the sliding door. Zack flipped the files closed and ejected the data crystal from Azar’s display table.

“I think we’ve found all the obvious attempts on his life that we’ll need,” said Zack. “Even if they weren’t intentional, the gross misconduct alone should make BristleCorp want to write him off as a loss before moving on.”

“So, when do you let us know the real plan?”

Zack looked at Azar who triumphantly finished removing the final segment of peel from his orange. He held it up to Zack, who shook his head.

“I had a big lunch. What real plan?”

“How’re you getting Azar out of this?”

“Did you not notice the last six hours we spent finding all the so-called accidents where BristleCorp tried finishing off the employees who were living too long?”

“No, I noticed it. I also think you think that even if we get an open and shut case that it won’t mean anything.”

“Well, it’ll be tough, but I think we can do it.”

“You really think BristleCorp’ll just roll over like that? I don’t. I’ve dealt with big companies before, and ones a lot smaller than BristleCorp can keep on going after something like this. You need something bigger to take ‘em on. A government, or another, bigger company.”

“That’s what we’re doing,” said Zack. “We’re getting the government to step in.”

“It won’t finish ‘em off. We need to chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out before they can do it to us.”

“We don’t need to go that far,” said Zack. “We wouldn’t have the resources even if we did. We’re trying to make them not want to, uh… chew us up by being unappetizing, or by being too much work to catch. If you take more calories to eat than the predator gets for eating you, it’ll learn to stop hunting you.”

“Yeah, that’d work if this was all being done sensibly. But we’ve also talked about how BristleCorp’s acting for spite here. Couldn’t say why, but I think what it means is clear: our offensive won’t offend nearly enough.”

“What’ve you got in mind?” said Zack.

“Nothing yet. That’s why I asked what you had in mind. Listen, I know you don’t trust me, and that’s fine. I’m new to this outfit. But I like Azar. He’s one of maybe four good, honest people that I’ve met in my life. And I want him to win. This thing you’re planning… this counter lawsuit, I don’t think he’ll win. It won’t get the job done.”

“Well, as soon as you get a better plan, let me know. Listen, I’m gonna hit the hay. I need to get up early so that we can finish up the work tomorrow. Take care.”

Zack left through the same door that Azar had used, leaving Zamona alone in the suite. He walked to the display table and activated it. The files that Zack carried were safe on the data crystal, but Zamona could still look up information on a few pertinent details.

“No offense, Zack, but I think Azar needs to be helped by a champ.”

Azar peeled a segment of the orange away from the fruit and popped it into his mouth while the data started to fill the space above the table.

Episode 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 110: Delicious Flaws

The cave was dark.

He had taken for granted the fact that he was descending. It was a reliable sensation of motion in a lightless environment, and along with the scent of damp stones and soil and the refreshing coolness of the air it was just a part of the backdrop for the trials he expected to start at any moment. What he wasn’t expecting was for the descent to stop so abruptly.

He shifted his gravity to avoid teetering over the edge, and adjusted his grip on the vines holding his platform. Did the vines stop lowering because there was no more vine to lower, or because the platform had reached solid ground? It felt like the ground. He tried rocking back and forth, but the platform didn’t sway beneath him. He carefully moved his hands up and down the vines, and felt the faintest hint of slack. He nervously reached down from the platform and felt solid stone.

Zack took more steadying breaths and cautiously stepped off the platform. He reflexively clutched his hand, but remembered that he didn’t have his lumisphere anymore.

“Where’d I put that?” he muttered, checking all of the pockets of his coat. He needed to start carrying actual light sources with him.

Except the light was dangerous, yes? The darkness was confusing but safe, while the light was illuminating for… whatever was in the darkness. That’s why someone told him not to use the lumisphere too often. Without the lumisphere there would, at least, be no risk of overuse.

“Hello?” he said, taking a careful step forward. “I’m looking for some sort of… trial? People who… don’t speak my language. Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala? Am I saying that right? …do tsaya and tsara mean different things, or are they different forms of the same word?”

A rustling came from the darkness in front of him. Soft hissing? Feathers ruffling? Shifting air pressure from an elevator closing on poor terms?

An electric hum sounded as a bright green crescent of light unfolded in the air in front of him. Zack stared at it, not sure why it looked so familiar. When it danced through the air, the way it moved reminded him of an old image of the Grim Reaper he saw a long time ago. Suddenly the light of the arc increased and he saw the manic smile face of Nectra, the shangmere assassin, illuminated by the light of scythe. Her wings spread and she seemed to surge through the air toward him, and Zack jumped out of the way. As Nectra drew nearer, he realized that she looked stranger than normal. Scales covered her face and her wings were graced with feathers, making them appear more like a bird’s than a bat’s.

The scythe vanished, and the light went with it.

“Nectra?”

“You are hunted,” said a voice behind him. Zack turned as his eyes adjusted. A dimmer light coming from somewhere above illuminated something that looked like a Sthenite but with vibrantly colored scales, fewer feathers, and strange spikes and ridges protruding from its skull.

“You speak English?”

“No,” said the creature. “But you can understand me right now. I should learn English, though. It appears to be the language of choice for Veskid’s children.”

“It’s a trade language,” said Zack. “Did I just see what I thought I saw?”

“An image taken from your mind. An assassin, Nectra. She was clearest, but colored by recent events. You are anxious about how the Sthenites will treat you… but you hold a deeper fear of being discovered.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t use Vox Cul-Dar or Murk. Or the… other one. The really scary one. …Fletch. She’s the DMA’s best.”

“By which you mean most skilled. Already I am learning some of the curiosities of English. Yes, there are many you fear discovering you. And many of them carry more weight than Nectra. But discovery, capture, loss of life… these are your strongest fears, but not your deepest. The one you saw tugs at your deepest fear as well.”

“Lady… sir?”

“Lady.”

“Lady, if you think I’m afraid of anything more than being caught by those people-”

“Do not presume to know your own psyche, just as a man who has never seen a mirror believes he knows his own face by the touch of his hands. So far we are still in the realm of fears to which you can give name. I would not be so cruel as to show you your greatest fears, the wordless terrors and designs that rise formless in the back of your mind. There are emotions you fear voicing and that your species has never defined, as well as racial memories of terror that go back a long way… I wonder what put them there? Charlotte had many of them as well.”

“Charlotte?”

The feathered snake creature tilted its head and a trill rolled in the back of its throat. She threw her head back and, despite the visual disconnect, Zack heard the sound of laughter.

“What? I don’t know any Charlotte.”

“The one you call Chala. It is more like the name of the Sthenites, and so she took it for her own before joining them.”

“Weird name for a human. Wonder why she didn’t tell me.”

“Hmm… dare I yield to temptation? There are so many ways to go… you already knew her name.”

“You sure about that? She’s not had long to tell me, you know.”

“And yet she has. It came up quickly. Close to your meeting with… hmm… the Haktorash.”

“Wait, the… giant worm thing? The Phantom Judge?”

“Yes…”

“Say, do you know if there’s more than one of those things? Or if there are a lot? Apparently there’s some debate about that.”

“I do know.”

“Would you tell me?”

“Would it matter? After you leave here, you will learn about the fungal spores that cause mild hallucinations in these caves. Not strong enough to cause something like me, but strong enough that you will always wonder if I was all your imagination.”

“So… are you my imagination?”

“No,” she said. “But I wish you good fortune in your endeavors to believe my claim later. For now I am the overseer of your trials. We must see if you are worthy of walking with the Sthenites.”

“Even though they don’t walk?”

“Ah… yes. Your language again… ‘trips’ me. So many delicious flaws… like the ridges and knobs on a log in a forest.”

“Yeah, sure. Look, for what it’s worth… I’ve got a feeling honesty’s important here. I don’t plan on being one of the Sthenites. I’m leaving as soon as my friend comes back for me.”

“Your friend may be delayed, though… she will need a way to land other than her asteroid.”

“Oh,” said Zack. “Right. …yeah, I’d… missed that.”

“So had she. And she has already encountered some troubles. Hmm… She guards this world, but not for the world’s sake. Only for yours. Friendship is admirable, as is your honesty. But neither are factors. The trial tests your worth, not your intent. And your worth shall, in fact, be tested.”