Tag Archives: hat

Episode 91: Of Sthenites and Strawberries

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

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

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

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

“Chala,” she said.

“Never heard that name before.”

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

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

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

“Where do you get the arrows?”

Chala raised an eyebrow.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s a strange arrow.”

“It’s a common design.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much earlier, on another world…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barris exhaled, as if she’d been worried.

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

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

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

“Frosty?” said Harold.

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

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

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

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

Zack and Barris shared a quick glance.

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

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

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

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

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

“Believe me, I wanted to,” said Zack.

“Then why didn’t you?”

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

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

Zack rolled his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold smirked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azar nodded at the gauntlets.

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

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

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

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

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

“Right away,” said Azar.

Advertisements

Episode 42: A Truth Set Free

Zack watched the door to the cell open and eagerly jumped inside. The room appeared to be empty, save for a chair and a device hanging from the ceiling. The device was shaped like a helmet or a light fixture, and featured a number of gently glowing lights fixed into its chrome exterior. The dome-shaped contraption glowed from beneath, and was suspended by a reinforced cable. Zack studied the room for a moment before wilting.

“She’s not here,” he said. “It’s empty.”

“No it’s not,” muttered Chip from the hallway. He typed another command into the cell’s control panel. Igneous caught the phrase and stopped peering into the room, noticing Chip’s continued work.

“Stop!” she shouted, but not before Chip finalized the command. The glow of the device in the cell faded as Zack looked over his shoulder, back to the hallway. Igneous grabbed Chip and pushed him against the wall while Hobbar watched nervously.

“What’s the problem?” asked Zack.

“He just did something to the control panel,” said Igneous.

“What’re you trying to pull?” asked Zack.

“Nothing,” said Chip. “You wanted the cell opened and accessible, and I’ve done everything I can to introduce you to the prisoner.”

“What prisoner?” asked Zack.

“That prisoner,” said Hobbar, looking into the cell beyond Zack. Zack turned around, looked back at the chair, and jumped back in surprise.

The faint outline of a figure was forming beneath the deactivated dome, a human-like shape that was gradually gaining solidity and form. The form it gained was white, like a gentle mist or cloud or steam that was gradually thickening before their eyes. In a definite moment of clarity, the mist shaped like a man became a person, transparent but definitive, garbed in a white robe that seemed to flow as a cloud. He stared at Zack in horror, his eyes growing wider with every moment. A tense second passed while the two looked at each other.

“Who…?” was all Zack could manage before the room errupted with a violent maelstrom of wind as air began circling and spinning in the chamber. The figure pointed at Zack and began to lift out of its seat as Zack felt the ground drop away from him as air pressure provided lift while making it hard to catch his breath.

The entity neared Zack, pointing, a mad look in its eyes, like a hawk staring at and through everything in its territory.

“How does your friend breathe?! Astride the rocks she moves, but how does she breathe?! Why is she not crushed on her path?!”

“It’s talking now!” shouted the chef, trying desperately to hold down the food. Already customers were rising from their tables outside the door, trying to look in through the circular windows, their attention drawn by the clatter of pots and pans being whipped about the kitchen by the maelstrom of rushing wind.

“It’s talking!” shouted the restaurant manager, holding the phone to his ear.

“Your secret will be discovered!” shouted the figure. “Prepare it before the ingredients are found, or they will know before the appointed time!”

“What secret?!” shouted one of the officers in the lobby of the police station. Officer Tacara activated the radio in her gauntlet as the others tried to keep all the papers in the room from scattering.

“Looks like a Pyrhian, an air person!” she shouted into her wrist. “It just appeared, no flow-through!”

“You will perform your duty, but you will not apprehend the one you seek! Justice will be done despite this mistake, but the justice will not end the chase!”

“Keep talking,” said Murk, holding the electronic seashell aloft. He ignored the flying papers in his sleeping chambers, knowing that recording the words would be the important thing. Something had happened in the holding cells, and someone would come along to wake him soon. Making sure it didn’t escape was the priority, but any word might be important.

“Your prey was released to be hunted, but another hunter found him before the vines could feast! Who is the hunter’s helper? What does she want? It is too late for those answers to aid you!”

Vox Cul-Dar had seen Pyrhian Air People before, but never one like this. He’d managed to reach the rear entrance of Murk’s facility, and had the one competant guard in the building in a headlock. As what seemed to be a living tornado popped into existence before them, Vox (and the guard, really) forgot their struggle as the ghostly image began shouting more and more words that meant nothing. Vox remembered his place and continued putting the pressure on the guard, releasing just as the guard lost consciousness but before it became fatal.

“Stop shouting, or you’ll blow my cover!” shouted Vox, letting the guard drop to the floor. The Pyrhian’s gaze seemed to focus more clearly on Vox.

“The one you seek is even now close at hand! Only great cunning and great skill will let you find your way!”

Fletch nodded, trusting that the message was a good omen. Whatever this Pyrhian… if it was a Pyrhian… was doing, it didn’t appear to be a threat. She lowered Chernoblast, and contented herself to keep listening.

“Carry your home with you no longer! You will be reunited with glory soon enough! Your prey wears many masks, but a mask does not need to be worn, nor a costume need to be donned, nor a breeze need a rock to sweep!”

Chip watched in smug satisfaction, seeing Zack, Igneous and Hobbar staring at the being in the cell. He looked down the hallway and saw another looking at him, adding its own rush of wind to what the others were experiencing. They didn’t even notice. Chip wondered how many others were conjuring themselves across Helix, and who each message was for.

“You shackle yourself, but your intuition and hope are correct. Void Pilgrim yet flies!”

“That’s what I told ’em!” shouted the ragged fellow in the street. “Void Pilgrim flies, and we’ve got tubes snakin’ their way through town! There’s a shadow-ruler who pulls the strings of Helix with the tools of the ancients!”

“Your path is obscured, but assistance may yet be found for you! Help is available if you seek it! And you…”

Carmen watched the terrifying creature seem to reach forward and grab… something. The image of a face formed in the hands of the specter. Even before the face fully formed, Carmen recognized the out-of-style hat on its head.

“Zack?!”

“What do you want?!” it shouted at Zack.

“To… to get out of here alive! To find Carmen, and to get out! To not be on the run! Put me down!”

The image stared at Zack, who stared back up at it, still finding it hard to breathe.

“You’ve been told when you’ll die, but not how long. Or how long you have to live, but not when you die. You’ll need to make hard choices to survive, but will you have the time for it all?”

The image of Zack dropped to the ground as many watched, and the picture began to spread, briefly filling in a floor and wall made of air and mist before the image suddenly collapsed.

Murk rose out of his tank at the sight of Zack Gamma in his cells.

Vox paused, rethinking what the grisly image meant.

Carmen looked from where the figure had been, to the open window that would let her escape if she wished.

Officer Tacara shut off her radio. The image, naturally, disappeared just after the psi-crimes unit had said they were on their way.

Fletch frowned. She had her reticle compare what was shown of the architecture of the room to known building structures in Helix. The odds of a complete match with such a tiny amount of information (from an interior shot, no less) would ordinarily not be worth considering at all, but the ever-curving nature of helix’s infrastructure might give her just the information she needed.

Zack stood, and backed away from the air-figure, who appeared to be weeping on the floor.

“I’ve never seen a Pyrhian do that before,” he said.

“It’s not common,” said Igneous.

“We should go, Carmen’s not here.” said Zack. “I hope nobody heard that.”

Episode 20: Awake at Alpha Street

Carmen opened her eyes, slowly working through a dull throbbing in her skull. It was unpleasant, but she’d had worse hangovers in recent memory and was able to slowly push her way through it. The light wasn’t causing her headache to get worse, fortunately.

She was sitting on an uncomfortable rolling chair in what looked like an empty hangar. She shakily got to her feet, causing the chair’s wheels to emit a loud squeak. She winced at the noise and decided that she should give herself a few minutes to let her mind get back on track.

The environment was eerie and still. The lack of a ship or car in the small hangar gave it the expectant emptiness of deprived purpose while the lack of dust or disrepair made her feel like someone might walk in at any moment and ask why she was there. She wasn’t exactly sure why.

She approached the exit, opened the door, and gave her eyes a few moments to adjust to the (fortunately not too painful) brighter light outside. She saw an upscale, though old fashioned, walkway along a street. Her side of the street had small hangar spaces, while the opposite side featured signs that advertised restaurants or small gift shops. A holographic sign floated nearby, saying that this was Alpha Street.

Carmen remembered Helix, Zack’s checkup gone wrong, the failed attempt to fly away, and the elevator. She ran back into the hangar to look for any sign of Zack, but the space was empty except for the unpleasant chair. She found the hangar’s control panel in the wall by the door, and opened the only other exit to the room, the massive gate that allowed cars or small ships in or out.

The gate opened onto a scenic view of the nearby Veskid City at dusk. Carmen had hoped that there would be a lengthy flight tunnel which might contain a maintenance door, or something that would indicate a direction that she could look for Zack, but the drop from the hangar gate was instantaneous, blocked only by the faint blue hint of the energy field that prevented strong winds from blowing in.

She ran back out and saw Alpha Street. Zack was missing. If they’d been lied to, if Gamma had just been abducted by the DMA then he was already dead. If they hadn’t been lied to, Zack might still be somewhere in Helix. Someone didn’t want her to know where Zack was, though. She needed to find out why, and to find out where Zack went.

More importantly, she needed to figure out where to even begin looking.
***
“Wake up, Mister Gamma.”

Zack’s head pounded. He wasn’t sure who was speaking to him, or why the speaker’s voice wavered and rippled so much, but the the soothing tone didn’t do anything to make his head hurt less. A few more minutes would be perfect.

“I know you can hear me, Gamma. The poison’s effect does not last this long. I can understand a desire to sleep longer with the days you’ve been having recently, but we don’t truly have time for you to recuperate. At least, you don’t.”

Zack managed to get an eye open. He automatically went through the motion of rolling out of a bed, but found himself restrained. He thought more about where he was, and realized he was in a chair. In a very dark room.

Everything rushed back to him. So he’d been caught by the DMA after all. The people in the elevator had lied to him. The single light in the center of the room cast shadows that obscured the room’s edges, including the desk in front of him. He focused his eyes and saw a silhouette behind the desk.

“Who are you? Where’s Carmen?”

“Don’t concern yourself with Miss Shift… she’s been released into Helix, as missing celebrities bring more unwanted attention than missing detectives, especially with her impending races and your socially accepted fate of dying alone in a back alley. But your ignorance wounds me, Zack. After all that time we spent together, I would think my voice alone would give me away.”

“Good point. You sound like someone fitted for a pair of cement shoes who got dropped off in a wishing well. Not exactly the sort of voice you forget.”

“I see. Your predictable view of the people around you continues to be as out of date as your hat.”

“My hat’s fantastic,” said Zack. “Just wait for forest green to come back in style again, and another five years or so’ll make this look a classic. Just you wait and see.”

“Aheh… yes, I will. A pity that you won’t be around to benefit from such a poor choice in fedora. You may not remember me, but I can assure you that this last meeting of ours will be the final thing you ever remember.”

Zack searched his mind for any memory of this person. Perhaps they worked in a different department? One he’d worked with when he first joined, but not since?

“Look, if you want the DMA bounty, just finish me off and claim it. Congrats. You beat Fletch, and that’s saying something. She practically had me earlier today.”

“Oh? I hadn’t heard that the greatest assassin of the Desperate Measures Agency was in Helix. That’s… distressing on some level. Regardless, I do take pleasure in being the one to see you breathe your last, but I’m not with your beloved agency of thieves and murderers. Your death will be personal.”

“Okay, I give up. Who are you? If you don’t want the bounty, and you’re not a member of the DMA, then why do you want me dead?”

“This borders on insulting,” said the shadow. It stepped forward, though “stepped” was hardly the correct word. Its form seemed to flow and surge, most of its mass gently rolling over the desk while the remainder slid beneath, both portions merging with each other as the entity drew nearer.

Zack convulsed at the sight, even though it told him that the creature was liquid or colloidal in some form. He guessed Pyrhian even before he could see the creature properly in the light. It was dark blue, darker than most Pyrhian water people. There seemed to be an inky quality deep within it. It chose a human-like face with two arms and three pillar-like legs, likely to give it extra stability if needed. Zack exhaled once the creature was fully visible.

“That’s surprising,” said Zack. “I wasn’t expecting… anything like that.”

“I’m sure you recognize me now?”

Zack looked over the creature, baffled.

“No,” he said. “No, I’m sorry. Look, you’re… obviously a very memorable person. At least, for a human you would be. Pyrhians aren’t exactly common. Did I know you before your condensation? If I saw you premetamorphosis then maybe that’s why I don’t recognize you.”

“No,” said the creature, stepping forward. It covered ground quickly, with its three, loping legs stretching to cross the small distance with alarming speed. “We met when I was like this. We met, and after what you did I made sure that you would remember to stay away from me. I warned you not to come to Helix ever again. And you didn’t listen.”

“Buddy, I think you’ve got the wrong guy,” said Zack. “I’ve never seen you before in my life. I’ve never heard your voice before. I don’t remember ever meeting anyone like you, and I’ve definitely never been told to stay away from Helix. Whoever you think I am and whatever you think I did, you’re lookin’ for someone else.”

A look of genuine confusion crossed the Pyrhians face.

“How can you forget this? I refuse to believe that my contribution to your personal history would be so mundane as to be forgettable. And it’s simply insulting to think that I, Murk, would make such a gross mistake in identifying you.”

“Murk… wait, I know that name. You’re the one who…”

Zack thought about what he was going to say, carefully putting it all into place.

“Oh?” said Murk. “Has your memory been jogged?”

“No,” said Zack. “I mean, maybe. You’re allegedly responsible for a number of smuggling operations in Veskid City. Some people thought you might be based in Helix. Are you that Murk? Whether or not the reports are true, mind you, I’m not interested in that…”

“Of course I’m that Murk. You know very well the kinds of businesses that I run.”

“No, I don’t,” said Zack. “I just work with people at the DMA. Your name comes up sometimes.”

“Playing dumb doesn’t suit you, Gamma. Instead, let’s see how you fare at playing dead.”