Tag Archives: Harold Zamona

Episode 166: Velocity

Captain Ortega spiraled out of the window, suddenly realizing the incredible danger that space presented without a rocket pack. He’d been adrift in the vacuum of space without a functioning rocket before, of course, but only rarely, and even then in friendlier space.

The display inside his helmet provided accurate, informative, and ultimately useless data about his location (related to both the Dyson ship and the nearby world of Veskid), the nature of his somersaulting through the void, and his proximity to the alarming pieces of sod, debris, and grass that were pouring out of the window with him.

Ortega took a deep breath, reminded himself that step one in these situations was to stay calm, and he flipped open the control panel on the left arm of his flight suit. Typically he removed as many of his suit’s automatic processes as he could; he almost always wound up in these situations on purpose as a result of a controlled risk, and he couldn’t count on the safety protocols to have his interests in mind. In this instance, though, the auto-stabilization servos needed to be reactivated.

He tapped in the command, and felt the ion jets in the suit activate, seemingly erratically though he knew they were all the results of heuristically determined calculations from his on-board computer. He saw the jets activate from panels on his arms, his torso, and once on his knee. He felt constricted as the armored flight suit became more rigid so that his own movements wouldn’t alter the intended results from the bursts of the ion propulsion units. In a matter of seconds, the wild, erratic spinning had been replaced by a gentle tumble that oriented him along the exterior of the Dyson vessel and matched its general velocity, though if it activated its engines to move anywhere even at a low speed he’d soon fall away from it. With luck he’d drift onto the ship soon, hopefully before anyone inside figured out where he was.

He craned his neck and took a look at Veskid over his shoulder. He didn’t expect the Dyson forces to honor the terms of the public display he’d sprung on them, but with any luck his success against the Emperor’s Herald would keep morale high and buy some time.

His proximity alarm began keening and a red light on his display started tracking something moving toward him, and fast. Ortega turned to look and saw the massive, hulking body of Harold Zamona, clutching and steering Ortega’s rocket pack to his chest. Ortega lifted an arm, but it didn’t keep him from Zamona’s rocket-fueled collision, an impact that caused damage warnings to begin flashing across his screen. Ortega’s eyes were instead drawn to the timer that had been tracking his expulsion from the vessel, a timer currently putting the time since his defenestration at twenty-one seconds, a time even longer for Zamona.

“How?!” Ortega shouted, even though he knew that Zamona couldn’t hear. On the other hand, the massive monster of a former wrestler shouldn’t have been able to see him at all; a person’s eyes typically gave out after ten seconds when exposed to direct vacuum, and moments after that he should have lost consciousness. The display was beginning to detect faint traces of Cyanosis on Zamona’s skin that Ortega hadn’t initially spotted himself, so he was at least relieved to see that the asphyxiation was beginning to affect him.

“What did those aliens do to you?” he said, though Zamona gave no indication that he understood. Instead, the former wrestler glared with rage, took one hand off of the rocket pack, reached forward, gripped Ortega around the chest, and squeezed.

The alarms began to ring even louder in Ortega’s helmet, and he felt the intense pressure on his chest. Soon, in a moment, his vision faded to black, with his final sight being the ceaseless glare of Zamona’s eyes.

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Episode 163: The Rocketpark Screwjob

Captain Ortega fired the blaster again, but Harold Zamona, moving faster than anything his size should be able to move, jumped behind one of the arena’s ramps. Ortega used his rocket to move into the air, wary of a sudden approach by the former wrestler and worryingly aware by now that his blaster, even on deadly settings, was mostly ineffective. At the strongest settings, his blaster could take out steel walls in seconds, but he wasn’t detecting more than a light singe whenever he successfully fired on Zamona, and the neurological properties of the blaster on the lower settings never did more than daze. He’d encountered other creatures that were effectively immune to his weaponry before, of course… ethereal beings of energy, ancient beasts with thick skin designed for volcanic worlds, and military-grade robots had all shrugged of his blaster… but none seemed so close to a baseline human as Zamona. His primary weapon was simply not effective.

The wrestler appeared overhead, somehow at the top of a ramp that arced higher than Ortega had flown. The captain killed his rocketpack’s engine just enough to start dropping like a stone, reactivated it when he’d fallen far enough to miss Zamona’s initial downward punch, and propelled forward in a graceful arc that took him toward the massive, transparent window that composed most of the wall of the park-like chamber. Ortega activated his reversal thrusters to keep himself from colliding with the transparent wall, and was treated to a spectacular view of Veskid amid the stars just as he heard the sound of Zamona hitting the ground behind him. He looked back and saw the titanic figure standing up from a crouch, and tensed while Zamona took calm, easygoing steps toward him.

“You’re pretty nimble for someone in a beat-up space suit. I can keep this up all day, though. The Dyson Empire’s not eager t’see someone so capable foolishly throwin’ their life away. What say you throw in the towel and tell the folks at home that you’re surrenderin’, and that they should too.”

“Seriously?” said Ortega, smiling. “I’ve got you on the ropes.”

“Funny. I don’t think you’re gonna like how this ends, though. Parents, you might wanna send your kids out of the room if they’re watchin’ this.”

Zamona jumped forward and Ortega rocketed upward. Zamona’s fist connected with the window and a horrible crunching sound cascaded through the room. Ortega held his breath as warning alarms started chiming, but he relaxed when he saw the herald’s fist retract to reveal that the window had crumpled instead of shattered.

“Transparent metal instead of shielded glass!” Ortega shouted.

“Couldn’t tell you.”

“Makes sense for a window that size, it holds up better against air pressure,” Ortega said, touching down on the ground. Zamona raised a confused eyebrow.

“Not flying away? Rethought surrender?”

“Nah,” said Ortega, unlatching the rocket pack from his back. “Just switching weapons. Computer, go to full burn, head for the big guy.”

Ortega swung the pack forward just as the engines turned from red to orange, yellow, blue, and white. The pack rocketed toward a surprised Zamona, slammed into him, and pushed him into the window. The Herald struggled for a second, further increasing the structural damage on the wall behind him, as he reached forward and tried to manipulate the pack.

“Nice try,” he said. “I’ve still got just enough control to not let this thing push me out, though. And it’s just not gonna hit hard enough to hurt me.”

“Don’t need to hurt you,” said Ortega. He pulled the trigger on his blaster and fired, striking the window just over Zamona’s shoulder. Too late, Harold reflexively lifted a massive hand to ward off the blast, not realizing that he wasn’t the target. An orange glow accompanied the increased heat as the transparent wall distorted. Harold looked back.

“Wait-”

The combined force of the rocket pack and the herald’s shoulders took their toll. The diminishing cohesion of the window failed, and the wall ruptured. An intense rush of air defenestrated the former wrestler, and the rocket made sure that he vanished into the void before he could react to what was happening.

Captain Ortega felt the rush of air and reflexively activated the magnetic boots on his spacesuit, a futile action while standing on the grass and soil of the rocket park arena. In a moment he’d lost his footing and been pulled into the emptiness just outside of the ship’s hull.

Episode 160: Blinding Blasters

Captain Ortega instinctively activated his jet pack, and spun to a gentle stop. He shook his head, still not sure what had just happened but feeling like a grenade had detonated to the left of his helmet, which hadn’t been active moments earlier. Alarms rang in the suit’s audio notifier and flashed on the display inside his helmet relaying a substantial amount of damage, damage comparable to being struck by a mag-lev. He turned in the air, frantically looking for his assailant and seeing the titanic figure leaping, nearly filling his vision entirely. Instinct prompted the triggering of his jet pack more than rational thought, and the captain launched higher into the air, narrowly missing Harold Zamona’s enormous fist.

He zipped through the sky in the domed section of the vessel, saw a ring hovering in the air, and instinctively moved toward and through it, keeping his eye on the giant figure below. He issued a diagnostic command for both his suit and his weapon, using both the Astroguard standard commands and the customized diagnostic commands that a friend made shortly after it became clear that Doctor Rogers was taking their frequent altercations personally. While neither diagnostic program indicated any immediate tampering with his equipment (apart from damage comparable to crashing onto a slow Class-C asteroid on his helmet from Zamona’s punch), he decided to leave the processes running in the background.

As the antigrav thrusters built into the rocket pack sent him through the hovering ring, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, rotated to the side, and saw Harold Zamona leaping off a ramp at the top of a nearby hill. The former wrestler sailed through the air, propelled by the power of muscles alone, and just missed a chance to swat Ortega out of the air thanks to the captain’s quick downward dive. Ortega looked up and over his shoulder to see the monstrous figure clinging to the hovering ring up above.

“Don’t think you’ll hide down there,” shouted Zamona. “I know I said there was nowhere in here I couldn’t get to you, but at least make me work for it!”

Ortega eased into an arc that allowed him to skim just over the grass while he examined the environment. He raised the laser blaster, took aim, and pulled the trigger just a moment too late to hit Zamona, who dropped from the ring, fell, and landed in the soft grass, an act that left a noticeable impression in the soil. Ortega slowed, took aim, and fired again, just as Zamona charged at him. The blast of energy connected with the forehead, making Zamona slow down and shake his head, as if momentarily dazed. Ortega’s eyes widened, and he took advantage of the wrestler’s slower speed to zip into the air.

“No offense, but you move and take a hit like some of the meaner dinosaurs. Hiding’s a viable strategy!”

“Like you know how dinosaurs hit…” said Zamona, holding his hand to his head and scanning the skies for his target.

Ortega pushed away a memory of an ill-fated temporal engine that Doctor Rogers had employed and focused on his surroundings. The laser had affected Zamona, but it did little more than daze him, which shouldn’t have been biologically possible based on what he knew of the blaster’s stun setting. Neurological scrambling should occur no matter how much musculature a human (or even human-like alien) possessed, but the wrestler remained standing.

With a final shake of the head, a look of clarity crossed over Zamona’s eyes and his gaze snapped toward Captain Ortega. Ortega quickly flew further away, and adjusted settings on the rifle to increase its lethality.

***

Zack’s aim was off.

Nectra was zipping leaping through the air quickly and not, he noticed, making the mistake of opening her wings to slowly glide, exactly the kind of opening he needed to make her drop. While he didn’t expect the cheering Sthenites to be pacified by simply rendering an opponent unconscious, he’d rather have that case be made with Nectra being the one taking the nap.

He coughed violently, feeling it deep in his chest. It was stabbing now, and if he ever figured out just how he picked it up he was going to dedicate a portion of his increasingly short life to making someone miserable. He looked up just in time to see the shangmere fall from the sky, kick his shoulders with her claw-like feet, and strike his head with her staff.

Zack fell back as Nectra lit on the ground, twirling her weapon as the multicolored blade of Virellium-fueled force energy activated. At first she was backlit by the bright sun hanging in Mandrake’s green sky, making her seem like a moving shadow with a single blue-tinted rainbow of a blade swooping away from her staff, but she thankfully stepped closer and reduced the glare. He couldn’t easily see her face during the fight, but standing closer to her now she looked genuinely morose. She shuffled forward, clutching her staff, but moving with a purpose that Zack never liked to see.

“Y’look like a kid who’s gotta put down a stuffed animal,” he said. He lifted an arm with one of his Strikers, but Nectra was still moving fast; she twirled her staff to knock the weapon out of his hand, and sighed.

“Bye, Zack,” she said, lifting the curved energy blade over her head. “I’m really gonna miss you.”

“Wait,” he said. “Nectra, there’s still a few ways this can go down. We didn’t really have time to talk earlier-”

Nectra’s eyes flashed and she looked up at the ring of Sthenites.

“I think the time for figuring out a quick escape was before we got here. This is… this is probably the worst time to say that you didn’t want to try to run away. They don’t sound reasonable. I don’t… I don’t think what you’re thinking will work. I thought you were going to k-… Zack, is this a trick? Is this-”

“Yes,” he said. “Definitely a trick. But not against you. It’s a longshot, but… look, we’ve got less time than a fish out of orbit. Win or lose, would you like my hat?”

“What?” asked Nectra, blinking a confused blink with her giant, unsettling eyes.

“If I die here, keep it,” he said, taking the green hat off of his head with a practiced roll of the arm. “But I’ve got a feeling I’m gonna need that back. Think you can hold it for me?”

“I… yes?” said Nectra, stepping forward.

Zack tossed the hat to the shangmere, who caught it easily. Nectra held it up, examined it, and carefully put it on her head while the cheers of the Sthenites became confused mutters and started the transition into angry hisses.

“This is weird,” she said. “I couldn’t wear this while flying. This would… not stay up, I’d need a pin or something.”

“Looks great, though,” said Zack. “Sorry.”

“Hmm?”

A bright flash of light lit up the pit and Zack twirled his remaining pistol, hidden under a fold of his coat. A tangy scent of ionization filtered through the air and mixed with the incredible stench of the superheated mud, breathing new life into the sensation for Zack, now alone in the trial pit of the Sthenites. The crowd looked stunned, but, after a few cautious verbalizations of approval, transitioned into a chorus of cheers and screams. Zack shakily rose to his feet, coughed, and looked up.

First, he saw the Suzerain, crossing her scaly arms and baring fangs approvingly. Then he saw Chala’s angry glare.

Episode 159: Trial By Combat

Zack stepped from the preparation cave and into the arena. A circular, rock-festooned pit made of the world’s ruddy soil, coupled with Mandrake’s oppressive sun, created a humid, radiating heat and a cloying odor that made it difficult for him to breathe. The opposite side of the arena wavered in the heat, but Zack assumed it wouldn’t be an issue for most of the combat. Sthenites slithered around the top of the pit, eagerly looking down to witness the first true trial by combat since their leader became the latest Suzerain.

Nectra clambered in from a preparation cave on the opposite side of the pit. She twirled her staff while looking around, saw Zack, and waved cheerfully. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement, and drew his pistols. Nectra took a step deeper into the arena and almost convulsed when she left the shadow covering her edge of the pit. She waited, allowed her eyes to adjust to the brighter light, and finished moving fully into her starting position.

Zack noted the reaction to the light after the shadow. It was stronger, he thought, than his own reaction to the smell, and while he could get used to the ever-constant mephitis of what amounted to damp, baking mud, the shangmere might have more difficulty with transitions between the shade and light thanks to her larger eyes. He’d need to cross all the way to her side of the pit to take advantage of that fact, though.

The susurrus of hissed conversations above subsided and Zack looked up. The cobra-like Suzerain had crawled into position, flanked by two smaller guards wielding spears. She began speaking, repeating phrases in the Sthenite tongue that Zack couldn’t begin to understand, though a few words were becoming recognizable. She continued speaking and waving her arms meaningfully, but without context Zack’s attention quickly drifted to Nectra, who was alternating between the Suzerain and Zack. She pointed at the Suzerain inquisitively, but Zack shrugged, just as lost as she was.

Whatever she was saying, she was reaching a crescendo, and the rest of the Sthenites were muttering and hissing to themselves, quietly at first but quickly getting louder as their leader did. Within moments, her speech was practically being shouted, and her audience was cheering and chanting with it, some even brandishing weapons at the sky, or the Suzerain, or even, Zack noticed, at the competitors in the arena.

Suddenly, the Suzerain cried out and struck an imposing pose, with her fist raised skyward. The crowd grew tense and the hundreds of serpentine eyes focused on the pit, their collective gaze almost having a weight of its own. Zack and Nectra looked at each other, uncertainly.

On the rim of the pit, resting just opposite the Suzerain, a yellow-scaled Sthenite twirled a bone from a recent meal, and struck the gong that had been quietly erected while Zack and Nectra’s eyes had been focused on the Suzerain. The two competitors jumped at the unexpected sound, a quick motion that prompted the crowd to begin cheering. Taking the cue, Nectra jumped into the air and stretched out her wings while Zack carefully took aim with his Purcellian Striker.

***

Captain Ortega let out a long, low whistle. He had envisioned a smaller room, and possibly a platform surrounded with the traditional electro-tethers, or possibly even archaic ropes depending on Harold Zamona’s wrestling preferences. Instead, the room reminded him of a pack-park, with patches of green grass interspersed with ramps, staircases, and spires on the ground, along with floating rings, hovering catwalks, and even a waterfall suspended high above that fed a gentle pond. Rocket-pack and jet-pack enthusiasts would compete on similar fields of play that weren’t half as detailed.

“Pretty picture, I say,” said Zamona. The captain of the Astroguard tore his eyes away from the room and watched the towering herald of the emperor swagger up next to him.

“I’d say so,” said Ortega. “Not quite what I was expecting.”

“Took some time to get it made. The hovering hydromill gave us problems of all sorts. Believe it or not, it was already partially finished when you went and made a fool of yourself in front of Veskid.”

“Lots of jet-pack joy-riders in your conscripts?”

“Keeps the morale high,” said Zamona. “I think you’ll find there’s nowhere in here that you’ll be able to jet to that I can’t get you, so I still don’t know how you expect to survive.”

“I’ll get by. Really going through with this?”

Zamona snapped a gauntleted finger, an action that produced a surprisingly musical chime, and soldiers bearing the logo of the Dyson Empire approached, one carrying the rocket and the other carrying Ortega’s Astroguard-issued blaster. Ortega nodded and began strapping the rocket to the back of his flight suit, hearing the familiar click of the internal motors that held the hardware in place.

“Thanks,” he said, picking up his rifle and checking it for signs of tampering.

“No problem,” said Zamona. “We’ve already started filming.”

Ortega looked up and around the environment. He couldn’t see any cameras, though he knew that hidden or microscopically small cameras didn’t need to be visible, though he didn’t imagine Zamona wanted to skimp on the spectacle.

“We have?”

“Oh, yes. Since you and I walked in. We have any viewers yet?”

Zamona glanced back at the entrance to the park where a small booth held a soldier who checked a readout and gave a thumbs-up.

“Well… glad we have an audience, then,” said Ortega. He looked to the far wall of the park and saw a massive window that revealed the stars beyond. Veskid was just rolling into view as the ship continued its rotation. He smiled, relieved to finally know exactly where in space he was.

“Same here. I didn’t much care for you trickin’ the poor folks of Veskid into thinkin’ that we had a deal. But since I never back down from a fight or back out of a deal, I wanted to make sure it was the best these people could ask for.”

“So, when do we start?”

Harold Zamona’s massive, boulder-sized fist slammed into the side of Ortega’s head, almost too quickly for his flight-suit’s collision-detection to snap the protective helmet into place. The powerful impact sent Ortega flying, rolling through the air and dropping to the ground at the base of the spire.

“Right now!” shouted Zamona.

Episode 155: Working The Messenger

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

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

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

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

“What can I say? People like me.”

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

Ortega sat up in his cot.

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

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

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

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

“Great! I’ll see you in the ring.”

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

“Is there something else?” said Ortega.

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

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

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

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

Episode 152: Circuses

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

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

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

“How?” asked Zamona.

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

“You mean we’re being ignored?”

“Yes, sir. By BristleCorp.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 144: Commercial Interruption

“Attention, people of Veskid, we apologize for this interruption, brought to you by your new leader, Emperor Dyson!”

The announcer’s voice blared over most visual or audio entertainment and information devices on the planet. Those who benefited from the visual feed saw the emblem of the Dyson Empire, the pointed half-oval on its side with a dot floating in the middle, an image resembling half an eye. The oval spun on an invisible axis while the dot remained stationary until the announcer finished speaking.

The image faded to a dimly lit studio. Harold Zamona sat at a desk with a glowing pattern of lights behind him. He smiled and waved to the camera.

“I apologize for this interruption, everyone on Veskid. I thought it best to let you know what’s been happening since our invasion began. Your government has been fighting a good fight, considering they were taken off guard… but this is not a militaristic world. You were in a safe and unreachable part of the Angelor Republic, far from the fringes. Unfortunately, your spatial position led to defenses that were not prepared for the latest advances in Dyson technology.”

The lights behind Zamona shifted, creating a holographic screen that revealed a star chart. As the Emperor’s Herald spoke, a sequence of stars were circled, and lines drawn between the circled stars.

“Harnessing the power of several specific stars at several specific star systems, our emperor was able to devise an amazing leap in teleportation technology. Long-distance teleportation without a receiving gate precise enough to move an armada far, far beyond where it could go with traditional methods of space travel.”

An arrow zipped from the final star on the chart, the star of the Morcalan system. The arrow arced over a vast stretch of space as the map pulled back enough to reveal the star of the Veskid system.

“Understand that we’ve been playing with the kid gloves on. We don’t want to destroy anything more than we have to. We’re not looking to shake up your lives too much, or for a tribute that would tax your already shaky economy. We don’t want to use up your military and police forces dealing with us when you have local problems to worry about. Instead, I’ve sent a short list with some very, very simple demands to your current leaders. I won’t go into the details about those demands, I’ll let the current management decide how much of that they’re comfortable sharing. For right now, I’d encourage you to let your voices be heard, and let the old order know that Emperor Dyson’s here to stay. And just in case you’re not convinced that we have the follow through, here’s someone who might be able to convince you. You’re on, Ortega.”

The screen split, revealing Captain Ortega standing on a podium, presumably in a different location. Not in his regular Astroguard flight suit, he appeared nearly half a foot taller but with a greater fluidity of movement thanks to the Dyson Empire brig uniforms. He looked at the screen, sighed, and waved to his assumed audience.

“Hello, Veskid! I’m Captain Andrew Ortega of the Astroguard. And, yes, I’m currently the captive of the Dyson Empire. I have been asked to confirm that they do, in fact, have technological and militaristic capabilities that are more than a match for Veskid under typical battle conditions. Their request for surrender is not an unreasonable one.”

On the other side of the screen, Harold Zamona nodded, smiled, and shifted in his seat.

“I have also witnessed strong evidence of possible war crimes being committed. The Dyson Empire employs mind-altering tactics when it comes to building their forces, leading to cybernetically persuaded conscripts. It’s a reprehensible tactic, even if it’s born from a desire to not employ more violent tactics to achieve the same goal.”

Zamona raised a hand as if to interrupt, but let the conversation play out.

“It is with gratitude and, I admit, some degree of trepidation, that the Dyson Empire has chosen a method for waging war which will minimize the loss of life, if resistance continues, to just one. I have agreed to single combat against the Emperor’s Herald, him with any weapons he chooses and me with my confiscated flight suit and weaponry, if the public agrees that this would be preferable to an outright surrender. Should I be victorious, the empire agrees to-”

The screens across Veskid went black.

***

“Just what were you trying to pull, Ortega?” shouted Zamona, crossing the small studio with surprising speed for a person of his size. Ortega shrugged at the nearing behemoth.

“You wanted to cash in on my image as a beaten hero? Fine. That’ll come with a cost though. You actually have to beat me first.”

“You don’t want that,” said Zamona, pointing a massive, gauntlet-obscured finger at the captain. “You really don’t want that. I don’t care if you’ve got your fancy space suit or blasters. You’d be dead so fast that they’d hear about it yesterday. We’re going to go live again, and you’re going to tell people what’s REALLY going to happen here.”

“I think I just did,” said Ortega. “How do you think it’ll help your position if they all see you backing off now? This is a PR move, and you’ll be losing on the PR. What do you say, then? Fight me for Veskid if the public agrees to that. If I lose, move in, set up statues, or do whatever it is that you do when you conquer planets. If I win, then take off and leave this system alone.”

“No,” said Zamona. “No, no, I’m not doing that. You think you’ve got me over a barrel, but you’ve got nothing. Our demands will go to Veskid as planned, and you’ll be confined to tight security until after this system’s completely under our control.”

Episode 143: The Glorious Gimmick

“Again, I can’t tell you,” said Ortega, leaning back in the comfortable chair. Harold Zamona folded his hands with surprising ease considering the size of his gauntlets.

“Again, not surprised. Do you just not know that particular Astroguard secret, or is this more loyalty to the Astroguard?”

“Does it matter?”

Zamona flicked a switch on the arm of his chair, and it turned until he was looking out a window.

“Probably not,” he said. “I may just have to introduce you to one of the lenses.”

“You don’t want to do that.”

“Not really, but havin’ Captain Ortega leading the charge of a Dyson strike force would be a great PR move.”

“Actually, I’m not sure it’d work on me,” said Ortega. “I’m sure your methods are thorough, but between the Astroguard’s training and a few personal experiences I’d rather not dwell on there’s a lot I’m prepared for.”

“Please don’t tell me that you think you’re immune to mind control because The Soul Survivor’s tried it on you so many times. Brains don’t work like that, especially human brains.”

“Please… Doctor Rogers is good at just about anything he puts his mind to, but he’s hardly the best mind controller that I’ve had to deal with. For that I’d either say… Thezabl, Queen of the Zyrmizar, or possibly… Viceroy Wilbur O’Connell of Naran.”

Zamona looked over his shoulder, looking like a curious mountain.

“I’ve never heard of the Zyrmizar.”

“Hope that you never will,” said Ortega. “They’re more active near Glorien space. I don’t know how the Glorien people hold them off so effectively. Imagine giant space hornets with duck bills. Or… or sort of like a platypus with wings and a stinger.”

“Do you ever have anyone verify all these things you see Ortega?”

“More often than you’d expect, but less often than I’d like.”

“Okay. Okay, I’ll buy that you’ve seen these Zyrmizar. A suspicious person would think that you’re very skilled at making these things up for your own image.”

“Says the person who wants me leading a strike force because of how it’ll look in the propaganda game.”

“I’m a wrestler, a military leader, and the herald of my emperor. It pays to have an eye for spectacle.”

“And where is this emperor of yours?”

“Doin’ whatever he wants. He’s the Emperor. Probably relaxing, maybe watching a movie.”

“I think it’s weird that he doesn’t show up in any media anywhere. You say you’re concerned with PR and promoting the Empire, but no one sees him except in a shadowy silhouette from time to time. They see you. I don’t think there is an Emperor. I think it’s just Harold Zamona.”

“If it weren’t for the Emperor I wouldn’t have these gauntlets on right now. Good news for you, because otherwise I’d be tempted to rip your arms off for that.”

“Are you telling me you couldn’t rip my arms off even with those things? You’re touching that table pretty gingerly every time you put your arms on it.”

Zamona scowled and turned back to look at the window.

“Think what you want. Maybe you’re right that I shouldn’t put you through standard conscription protocols, but that just means I can use you for Plan B. B stands for Better in this case.”

“Better?”

“Better for public relations. The military would benefit if the public saw you in our patrols, but I think they’ll benefit even more if the public sees you as our prisoner.”

Episode 136: Interview with an Iceberg

“Don’t stare at his gauntlets.”

Captain Ortega looked over his shoulder at Alsafi and the two laser-toting guards behind her. The hallway outside of Harold Zamona’s door was designed with the elegant simplicity of someone who wanted to intimidate. Most who walked the hallway probably didn’t notice the way that the overhead lights acted as simple guiding lights toward the door, and that the lines of the floor created a similar visual effect. The converging lines on both sides would create a subconscious feeling that the already vaguely-sinister technological hallways were narrowing, getting smaller with every step. The effect was reinforced by the door itself, a large blast door that would have looked more appropriate as an airlock or a hangar gateway, especially when compared to the relatively tame doors that had been present so far in the hallway. Suddenly appearing before a massive door gave the sense that the approacher was getting smaller, even while the hallway was seemingly getting cramped, all without anything changing. Ortega had seen it many times before, and wondered if the Herald had done it on purpose.

“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked. “Does he have disproportionate retribution when people stare at the gauntlets?”

“Oh, no,” said Alsafi. “It’s just rude. Plus I think he’s sensitive about them, between you and me and our two friends here. They can be startling the first time you see them in person.”

The two guards nodded in general agreement.

“Thanks for the heads up, then,” said Ortega.

“No problem!” said Alsafi, tapping a code into the panel by the door, but standing so that Ortega wouldn’t be able to see it. The massive door hissed, clunked, and much of its exterior structure rotated clockwise. The door parted in the middle and the two segments of the door opened into the hallway. Alsafi gently clapped Ortega on the back.

“Have fun in there!” she said, before vanishing from sight. Ortega looked over his shoulder at the two guards.

“Do you have any idea how much it costs every time she does that?”

The two guards shook their heads and one meaningfully pointed her weapon at Captain Ortega. Ortega nodded, turned toward the door, and stepped into the dimly lit hall beyond. Windows on the left side of the hallway provided a quick view of stars, but Ortega wasn’t familiar enough with the Veskid system to use them as a guide to know where he was. The hall ended at another door which slid open as he neared.

The room was arranged like a comfortable conference room. A small table, suitable for a small crowd of people, waited in the center of the room, but only a single chair waited for him on his side. Immediately opposite was Harold Zamona, sitting and smiling patiently.

Harold waved Ortega closer, and Ortega was suddenly struck with just how large this person was. He’d seen Zamona over video feeds and screens before and knew that he would be big and muscular, but the person in front of him was positively giant. It was hard to tell while he sat, but the man must have been at least eight feet tall, if not nine. The arm that was cheerfully waving him to the table was massive, and reminded Ortega of the limbs of certain brutish aliens he’d seen, usually in the bottom of death traps that he was forced to endure. Each arm ended at an enormous gauntlet, one that was thick enough to make his hand seem a third larger than Ortega would guess at based on the size of the arms.

Ortega remembered Alsafi’s words, recovered from his shock, and approached the table to sit.

“Thank you,” said Zamona.

“For showing up here?”

“For saving my life, and the life of everyone on this ship.”

“I didn’t exactly do it alone.”

“No, but you brought the problem to our attention. A smart person would’ve gotten out of here with the chance you had at escaping.”

“Only if escape was the goal the smart person was trying to achieve. I wouldn’t say that I was smart, but I couldn’t let everyone on this ship die. Most of them are under mental manipulation.”

“Not as many as you think.”

“One is too many,” said Ortega. “Even just an emotional push to get someone to do something they want to do is criminal. Punishable by all recognized systems within the Angelor Republic. Thinking otherwise is barbaric.”

“We’ll see if the Angelor Republic agrees with you after it’s part of the Dyson Empire. Our triumph isn’t the result of barbarism, it comes from our Emperor’s technological supremacy.”

“Barbarians are always the first adopters of new technology,” said Ortega. “It’s why they have such an impressive track record. Your empire is still just a fleet of space barbarians committing well-organized acts of piracy and guerrilla warfare.”

Zamona narrowed his eyes and stopped smiling. He steepled his fingers, an action that made his arms take up most of the space on his side of the table.

“I can see we’re done playing nice, then. You should’ve died by now. I killed you twice.”

“No you didn’t.”

“I thought I did. I shot that ship with you and The Soul Survivor, and later I received a transmission from a downed ship in our empire that collected your face and voice. Later we capture you and throw you into a cell. Now, we can analyze the cell and work out how you escaped, and we can also just go over Tan’s logs to see how you got out of his ship’s self destruct sequence. I still don’t know how you and The Soul Survivor escaped from that first meeting, though.”

“Have you found him yet, by the way?”

“Yeah,” said Zamona. “He destroyed a few other ships. Tan’s vessel has been outfitted with some sort of stealth technology. Is he a barbarian too, then?”

“No,” said Ortega. “Doctor Rogers is a genius. An insane one, but a genius. He doesn’t invent out of necessity, he invents on the fly. I might call him a nomad, though, since he’s always on the move. The Emperor’s technology might be able to out pace him, but I don’t think it could ever out innovate him. How did you wind up working or this Dyson fellow, anyway?”

“That’s a long story, Captain. A long, long story that I’m afraid you don’t have time to hear.”

Much earlier, on another world…

Harold Zamona opened the folder and read the information inside. The burning cascade of flaming crystals in the hotel lobby was visible through the conference room’s window, though the sight was less majestic in the more reserved, business-appropriate chamber. He shook his head and leaned back in the reinforced chair that creaked under his weight.

“Seems harsh.”

“You want him gone? This gets him gone.”

Zamona’s head zipped from the document to glare at the woman of orange-flecked stone who stood before him. The Pyrhian almost took a step back, probably not used to speaking to humans who were taller than she was, especially when they were sitting. She recovered quickly and returned the glare.

“Mister Murk is very interested in helping you out, and he sincerely wants to do it without asking any questions. You want the gumshoe out of the way? This’ll get him out of the way.”

“I don’t want him dead. This vine thing looks nasty.”

“It is,” said the Pyrhian. “But it won’t kill him. Keep reading. The later stages of life aren’t as violent, but they’re just as good at their job. It’s how Mister Murk takes care of all of the people who need to disappear that might be useful later. You wouldn’t believe some of the people he’s got in the Underjungles like that.”

“Such as?”

“Such as has-been wrestlers who ask too many questions.”

Zamona paused and looked up from the document. The Pyrhian was glaring, but he could see fear in her eyes. He smiled.

“You’re good at that.”

“At what?”

“The trash talk. Probably needs to come up a lot in your line of work. What’d you say your name was again?”

“Fiamme.”

“Never head of a Pyrhian with a name like that.”

“My fault for picking a human word for a name, then. Does me no good when no human knows it.”

“Why not change it?”

“Hey, I like my name. Would you change yours?”

Zamona shrugged.

“I’m not legally allowed to go by The Iceberg without permission from the appropriate wrestling franchising associations. Don’t know if you’d call that the same thing, though. Speaking of which…”

Fiamme reached into her case and withdrew a dark orange data crystal. She set it onto the table.

“Mister Murk is very, very grateful to have a wrestler of your caliber. Those gauntlets WILL keep you at near-human strength, yes?”

“Yes,” he said, gingerly picking up the crystal with his gauntleted hand. “For now. If I’m using it regularly in fights, though, we could burn through it before the next upgrade’s ready.”

“We’ll try to schedule you so that you won’t have to fight too regularly. While we hammer out some details with your organization, you’ll have to wear a guise other than Iceberg, of course. But we expect that within a month of your first appearance, you could go back.”

“Don’t know if we should do it that soon,” said Zamona. “The secret wrestler approach can draw crowds, get you more money. A well-timed revelation can bring a bigger crowd.”

“Let us worry about that kind of thing. Our cut on Ravelar’s fights are substantial enough that we make sure that they keep the fans coming back for more.”

“Suit yourself,” said Zamon. “And thanks. One less trench coat to worry about, and I start gettin’ back in the ring. It’s win-win.”

“We feel the same way.”

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.