Tag Archives: Igneous

Episode 167: Rock Beats Pauper

“You sure picked a great place to head, Gamma,” said Chala, cutting through a branch with her machete.

“It looked close,” he said, wheezing as he followed behind. The pain in his chest was growing sharper instead of staying at the dull and hollow pain he’d been managing with. “And it’s… more or less on the way to the field where I landed. Carmen’s gonna need to get me off the planet eventually.”

“If she survived reentry,” Chala said.

“I don’t think she’ll be coming down on an actual asteroid, I think she’s gonna get a ship… Hope she hasn’t already landed, honestly. Hope she’s not too worried about me…”

“I think she’ll have other things to worry about, if you’re anything to go by,” she said. “How’re you holding up back there?”

Zack coughed and waved his hand dismissively. Chala stopped and looked over her shoulder.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I mean… I feel like I’m dying, but apart from that I’ll be good.”

“If you say so,” she said, turning forward again and resuming the walk. “We’re almost there, but between you and me I think that fight with Nectra took a lot out of you, and I’m pretty sure she was holding back.”

Zack didn’t comment, but continued his walk through the ill-defined “trail” that Chala was either discovering or creating as they moved. The scent of the world’s humid air, baking clay, steaming mud, and spongy trees wasn’t comforting. Why was he dying despite being, as far as he could tell, healthy?

Chala reached the edge of a clearing, but paused and held up a hand. The field before her was clear and covered with a crumbly, moss-like vegetation, and a cool wave seemed to be coming from it.

“What?” said Zack.

“We can’t go this way.”

Zack resisted the urge to say that it looked fine to him. He stared into the cool clearing and couldn’t see anything immediately dangerous. He glanced at Chala’s eyes and saw calculated concern, though not immediate worry.

“What’s the problem?”

Suddenly, from the trees above, a figure in a green robe dropped into view between Zack and Chala, an insect-like figure who swept his leg in an arc that immediately dropped Zack to the ground. The trajectory of the leg sweep continued, but Chala was both faster and had more time to react, jumping back and aiming her bow at the figure.

Zack looked up, and stared into the bug-like eyes of Vox Cul-Dar. He jumped up and backward, twisting over Chala’s leg and throwing off her aim before landing. She twisted in place and fired the arrow at the alien, but Vox’s hand was faster, sweeping forward to connect with the projectile and continuing the arc to effectively throw it into a nearby tree.

“The next one goes into you or Gamma,” he said, staring into Chala’s eyes.

“That’s not likely,” she said. “My aim was off that time.”

“Mine wasn’t,” he said, smiling. “And it won’t be. The gift of the tea is fading, but I feel certain of this.”

“Tea?” said Chala, letting the tip of her arrow drop. The humidity seemed to intensify and the heat of the jungle seemed even worse than a moment earlier.

“I wouldn’t push him,” said Zack, shakily massaging his ankle. “I’ve never seen him do that before, but if he can do it once he can do it again.”

“You stay on the ground, Zack,” said Vox. “Until victory is assured, I won’t have you ambling about. You have a talent for misdirection, and opportunities for evasion are always in abundance.”

“Just lucky I guess,” said Zack.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Gamma. These opportunities are everywhere. You just know how to take advantage of them.”

“Get up, Zack,” said Chala, pulling another arrow from her quiver and feeling another wave of heat. “Even sick you were almost a match for Nectra. Between the two of us, odds are still on our side.”

“Before he could get to a knee or pull one of his pistols from his holsters, I would destroy your bow and nullify your ability to assist,” said Vox. “You seem martially sound, so I will do you the honor of not assuming that you would be dead so quickly, but that would follow shortly thereafter.”

“Martially sound?”

“He’s good enough at physical combat that he knows what he’s talkin’ about,” said Zack. “Studied it professionally, and that was before he joined the DMA and got hands-on experience. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, but he probably thinks he’s good enough to gauge how good someone is in a fight before fighting ‘em.”

“I may have overestimated my capabilities before,” he said. “But I’ve got an extra ace in the hole this time.”

Another wave of incredible heat rushed in, heralding the arrival of Igneous, pushing her way through the trees that singed at her touch. Her molten eyes glared with stern determination, and her gravelly fists easily cleared the path.

“You were right,” said Igneous. “They came right here. …Hello, Zack.”

Zack looked at the towering figure of Igneous and his heart sank.

“Well then… rock beats PI. We can’t win this, Chala.”

“So, what, you want me to just stand here while you kill Zack?”

“No,” said Igneous. “Vox and I have a deal. Zack lives.”

“For now,” said Vox. “If you wouldn’t mind, now that my reinforcement has arrived, would you help your friend up? We have a bit of a walk to go, and Gamma looks like he’s in no shape for it. Then again, neither is Igneous with how long it took her to arrive. She should bring up the rear to keep an eye on you two.”

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Episode 164: The Shape of Fire

Igneous sat in the clearing by Vox’s tent, sweltering near the sculpted mound of dry ice she’d positioned in the fire pit. That the ice itself was shaped like a traditional human campfire wasn’t lost on her and, in fact, was part of why she decided to pick up the small mound of cardice for her supplies. The “campfire-shaped sculpture” was rough and clearly made for humans just looking for vague shapes at parties, but it served her needs to a degree. She’d informed its maker that the Pyrhian word for the shape was Comcora, a word that might do better at selling to other Pyrhians than “campfire-shape”. She doubted anything would come from it, but she’d always liked the word.

After the purchase, she’d considered breaking it up so that she could cover herself in the material, but the risk of shattering when in contact with extreme colds remained. She didn’t know how much longer she could last, but for right now she was willing to cool herself by the camp ice.

A rustling from the planet’s strange foliage heralded the arrival of Vox Cul-Dar. He slowly entered the campsite, pulling a net behind him, one that Igneous saw contained an unconscious Shangmere. She looked up at Vox as the bounty hunter dropped the ropes he’d been using to drag the net. He approached the campfire, eyeing the cardice carefully.

“You’ve replaced my fire pit with a block of ice, I see,” he said. “That explains why I’ll be chilly tonight.”

“You were expectin’ to be cold in this humidity?”

“Just a feeling,” he said. “Which is quite a feat if you’re around, I must say. You’re truly not looking well, Igneous. Are you certain that you’re up for catching Zack and Fletch.”

“Fletch and Zack,” she said. “Though I note that you’ve brought us neither. I thought you said you’d bear great fruits.”

“Oh, I have,” he said. “I know you want us to focus on Fletch first, and we will, but I believe this creature is imperative to locating Gamma at all. Zack will encounter her again.”

“Well, he is a stupid human,” she said. “He likes to help. I wouldn’t expect him to rush into danger just to rescue a friend who could probably handle themselves, but I saw him more or less do just that in Helix.”

“Igneous, are you suggesting that we send a note to Gamma, informing him that we have his friend held hostage and that we will terminate her if he doesn’t surrender?”

“No, but I thought you were going to,” said Igneous. “That seems like your way of thinkin’ when you can’t punch or kick someone into captivity.”

“Perhaps it is,” said Vox. “For Zack, though, we won’t need any such ruse. Behold…”

He reached into his backpack and withdrew a horrible, green hat with an antenna sticking out of the crown. Igneous took a step back.

“You were right on his tail, then,” she said. “How’d you get that?”

“I picked it up from her,” he said. “I had a hunch that I’d meet her, and the hat contained a note written in Zack’s handwriting.”

“You know his handwriting? Vox, you’re takin’ this hunt too seriously.”

“Not for the reward the DMA is offering I’m not, and neither is Fletch, wherever she is. In any event, this was a very helpful note, one that will, I expect, take us directly to Gamma when he finally rears his hatless head.”

Episode 147: Heed ‘Em

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

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

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

“You smoke?”

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

“The what?”

Zack stared at Nectra before shaking his head.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

“Well, you seem pretty martially artistic.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our deal did not specify that-”

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

“Yeah,” said Igneous. “Heed ‘em.”

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

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

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

Vox frowned and pushed Rendelac back into his pack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Azureback Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it?”

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

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

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

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

“You might say that,” said Igneous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 123: Echo’s Soliloquy

“I don’t like where you’re going.”

Igneous stopped and felt a chill for the first time in weeks. She looked over her shoulder, and saw only the alien plants, mostly purples and yellows in this patch of the jungle. She was closing in on the primitive city filled with the snake-like creatures, and was just about to dive into the river that seemed to be the only way into their land that wasn’t carefully watched, probably because it was so visible that no one would think it to be a security risk anyway. All of the vegetation here was sparse enough that she felt confident that no one could sneak up on her, and certainly no one who spoke Pyrhian so fluently.

“You don’t want to go home?”

She had said it. She didn’t like that she’d been the one to say it, but she had.

“Still a lot to do,” she said, ignoring the fact that it looked like she was speaking to herself. It reminded her of an opera she had seen when she had been a young gust, an opera where the Pyrhian hero had confronted both her inner demons and the literal demons through soliloquy.

“That hasn’t stopped people before. In fact, it’s the primary thing that I hear when they don’t want to go home. There’s still so much undone… and as much as we would love to oblige, we just can’t. Not for everyone.”

“Quiet,” said Igneous, moving closer to the river. She stepped out of the underbrush, and felt exposed. The uppermost part of a wall of the city was visible just over a hill from here, and anyone on top of it looking in her direction would doubtlessly see the bright orange glow from her cracked hide.

“Why should I stay quiet? What will you do to me? Pummel me with your fists? Which do you think will harm me… the stone? The fire?”

Igneous neared the water. It was a reddish gray thanks to the soil Mandrake had in this region. There was another danger she faced when entering the water, but it was more a danger of discovery. In some ways, she was looking forward to it.

“And we’ve gone from verbal challenges to silence. Very well… continue playing outside a bit longer, but it’s growing dark. You’ll need to come in soon. Have fun playing with your human friends while you still believe in them. They’ll be gone soon enough when you’ve grown up and admitted that your real life has begun.”

Igneous scowled but refused to say anything more. She wasn’t sure why her own voice had betrayed her. She’d forgotten to check in the water’s stream to see if her own mouth had been moving or not, and wished the thought had come to her before now. After a few minutes, she was convinced that the voice wasn’t going to say any more.

She lowered a toe into the water and a jet of steam rose into the air. It grew bigger as she fully submerged. The water was cool, and while not as cold as the ice she’d grown accustomed to using over the previous few days it flowed over her, bringing new coolness before her own internal temperature could warm the water that was touching her. It was warmer than she wanted, but not stagnant.

She looked up through the surface of the water and worried about the cloud. It was so much larger and louder than the tiny smoke clouds that her feet had been leaving in the foliage everywhere she walked through the jungle, and the griseous steam would be more noticeable by far. After some time the steam reduced to a gentle amount that dissipated sooner.

She cautiously lifted her head above the water. The worst was over, and any damage that could have been done had already been done. She put one massive arm in front of the other and began swimming toward the nearby city.

Episode 108: Jungle Predators

Igneous pushed aside a branch, stepped through, and removed her hand just as it started smoking. She didn’t think there was any real danger of her presence starting a forest fire amide these trees… most of them appeared too damp, and sometimes too spongy, to catch flame easily. Still, the occasional clouds from the branches she touched were beginning to worry her.

She checked her tracker again. The signal from Zack’s landing site was drawing nearer. It wouldn’t be long before she was in visual range.

She pushed between two thorny bushes that probably would have killed most humans attempting to travel by the same route, and paused at the sight of the small ravine in her path. A narrow bridge was formed by a fallen tree. She stared at the soft, spongy bark of the tree and wondered if she could maintain her balance on it. She also wondered what her chances would be of the tree not catching on fire and burning itself apart while she walked over it.

She took a deep breath, again wishing she knew if deep breaths or rushing winds would feed the heat inside her. She stepped back as far as the thorny bushes would allow, and ran forward. Her usual speed was diminished in part by ground much softer than the city streets or space stations that she frequented, and she had a moment of panic as her final footstep touched the edge of the cliff and propelled her forward.

She soared through the air, realizing that she wasn’t going to go as far as she usually could on a jump. She wondered if the soft soil was to blame, or if she had grown weaker than she realized while holding off her metamorphosis.

She dropped like, as the humans would say, a stone, arcing down too sharply. She pulled an arm back and, in a moment of desperation, punched the dirt inches below the ravine’s edge. Her fist dug into the soil of the cliff, and her fall halted in an outward explosion of muddy dirt and stone. She took the chance and reached up, putting an arm over the top of the cliff. She paused and, after a second without falling, began to laugh her low, rumbling laugh. The laughing lasted much longer than it had in recent memory, but it stopped abruptly when she realized that the edge of the cliff was starting to droop down toward her.

She dug her highest arm into the ground and scrambled up, pushing herself to finish the climb before too much of the cliff gave way. Moments of worry later, she pulled herself over the edge while piles of soft dirt fell behind her. She stood, jumped away from the edge, and walked a good thirty feet before looking back.

The bridge formed by the fallen tree remained in place, and the now-wider jump where she had attempted it looked maddeningly treacherous after what she knew about the soil structure.

“Next time, jump over the bridge instead of the empty air,” she told herself.

She checked the scanner again, got a fix on Zack’s landing site, and walked through the trees. She had work to do, and no time to dwell on the close call, but an observer familiar with Pyrhian facial expressions would tell you that her usual look of stony determination had been replaced with a genuine smile.

***

Vox Cul-Dar reached into the wreckage of the robotic parachute with the tweezers he’d included in the poison mixing kit. He held back a fold of the cloth with one hand while sifting aside chipped fragments of debris until a tiny, glowing dot came into view.

“There it is,” he said. “Rendelac, I’ve found it. We can begin the examination.”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “We have a disparity of goals.”

“What do you mean?”

“You wish to remain undetected and surprise Zack Gamma,” said Vox Cul-Dar. “You also wish to examine the remains more carefully. In the clearing we are visible. In the jungle we can hide. Your desire to examine the parachute itself is, while thorough, a risk greater than any rewards you are likely to glean. I suggest taking the tracking device with us into the trees and returning it after our examination is complete. Leave the parachute.”

“Sensible as always,” said Vox Cul-Dar. “I would know more of this parachute, though. The odds are against it, but it may have other useful information.”

“It is a possibility,” said Rendelac. “And though I advise against it, if the computerized elements of the parachute remain intact, it is possible that I could discern some of what caused Zack Gamma to abandon it here.”

“Oh, yes,” said Vox. “I would very much like to know this.”

“Seek a Minyural connection,”

“That’s one of the triangular wires, yes?”

“Indeed.”

Vox looked over the parachute and found a Minyural connection port. He retrieved Rendelac from his pack, found a Minyural cord in the secondary supplies he’d brought at Rendelac’s recommendation, and connected the computer to the robotic parachute.

“Processing,” said Rendelac. “Yes, there is data here. It appears that Gamma used the parachute twice.”

“A jump before leaving Carmen’s asteroid?”

“No,” said Rendelac. “A jump after.”

“After? How is that possib-”

“Urgent, we are not alone!” said Rendelac. “Scanners indicate another!”

Vox spun in place to scan the tree line, just in time to see Fletch swinging at him with two batons, ancient Earth weapons known as escrima sticks. He raised his arms and caught the two wooden weapons with the serrated edges of his limbs.

“Too slow!” he shouted, locking them in place against each other and preventing Fletch from manipulating them. The assassin snarled and jumped back just before he kicked the air where she had been with enough force to kill. He stomped onto the ground and pulled his arms apart, an act that caused the blades to slice through the weapons, destroying them.

Unfortunately, the arm blades also severed the high-voltage wires located within the rigged weapons. The batons released their charge into both of Vox’s arms, jolting him and causing him to stagger back. In a daze he looked up at his enemy, saw the stun rifle in her hands, and blacked out when the burst of energy passed through him.

Fletch tossed the rifle to the side, stepped to the parachute, and lifted Rendelac off the ground, keeping the Minyural wire plugged in as she did so. Her cybernetic reticle scanned the trees quickly and, convinced that she was alone, lifted the thin computer high enough to look into its green, softly-glowing eye.

“You’re Vox Cul-Dar’s pet computer,” she said.

“I am no pet,” Rendelac said. “I am an adviser and councilor, meant to instruct and-”

“Pet computer,” she repeated. “Word around the DMA says that he doesn’t listen to your advice unless it’s convenient for him. You’re a sentimental reminder of his past, I’m guessing.”

“I have often considered this,” said Rendelac. “You are speaking half-truths to rattle me. I know what is true of your statements, and what is not, and though I have emotions I do not have the emotional ties required to be confused by emotional manipulation. Humans have a wonderful gift for using emotions to outsmart those who are smarter than themselves, but Rendelac has never been swayed by such tactics. I speak both of the true Rendelac and myself when I say this.”

“Fine,” said Fletch. “No tricks. Just options. You’re here for Gamma.”

“Correct,” said Rendelac.

“Awfully honest there.”

“Deception is rarely warranted. I gain nothing with a lie at this time.”

“Great. You’re going to tell me everything about Vox’s work here. How did he know Gamma would be here, how he found this clearing, what his plans are for actually catching Gamma, everything. I’ve already worked a lot of this out, and if I get the sense that you’re leaving out an important detail then I snap Cul-Dar’s neck followed by three puncture wounds to vital organs since I know that neck snapping won’t kill him immediately like it would for a human.”

“Then why-”

“So he’ll die in pain,” said Fletch. “I took special precautions to avoid anyone else being on this planet. Just me, Gamma, and the locals. I don’t have time to deal with you and Vox. You’re the kind of complication that made Zack too tough to pick up back at Helix.”

“Very well,” said Rendelac. “I will tell you everything you want to know.”

“Maybe the great wisdom of Rendelac’s got something going for it after all,” said Fletch.

“I’m sure I don’t gain anything by saying so, but Gamma’s bounty can’t be worth this trouble. Money doesn’t buy happiness.”

“I’m not an assassin or bounty hunter for the money,” said Fletch. “I’m in it for the glory. The money’s a really nice fringe benefit, though. Now, no more stalling.”

***

Igenous pushed through the trees around Zack’s landing site, took one look at the scene, and instantly stepped back into the forest. A dazed-looking Vox Cul-Dar was on the ground, and Fletch was speaking to a computer, probably the Rendelac model that he used. She had known that she would run into Fletch sooner or later, but had hoped it wouldn’t be this early. She needed to move away from the clearing. Gamma obviously wasn’t anywhere near here, and the second that Fletch looked in her direction the cybernetic reticle would register her heat signature.

Igneous pushed away from the clearing, trying to think. If the tracer had been left behind, likely in that wreckage, then how would she find Gamma? And how had Vox gotten here? There was too much information she didn’t know.

The only thing she knew for sure was that if Fletch was around, then her supply of Teles wouldn’t be too far.

Episode 106: The Expected Clearing

Igneous opened the cold tub and instantly regretted it.

The sweltering humidity of the jungles of Mandrake crashed into her, overwhelming what little of the tub’s chill that hadn’t already been subsumed by the heat she generated.

She willed herself to be stone in that moment. The rock men and rock women of the Pyrhians were, with some noteworthy exceptions, the strongest and most stable of the others, and that strength was often mental and spiritual just as much as it was physical. She reached over the side and pulled herself into the sweltering heat.

The clearing was wide, and much like she had expected. Before Carmen had programmed Zack’s landing site into the robotic parachute, Igneous had attempted to determine which part of the planet, and if possible which landing site, the racer would select. Few people realized how easy it was to predict the decisions of others if those decisions were based on standard computerized methodology. Without adding qualifiers like ‘one of the top fifty-three results’ or even ‘I’m trying to avoid detection, mix it up a little,’ replicating such strategies was easy enough. After determining what clearing on the planet would fit the most variables, she selected one near to it; Zack had no reason to suspect that she would follow him to Mandrake, and dropping off her tub right next to him could lead to uncomfortable questions.

Igneous reached into the cold tub and withdrew her small package of supplies, feeling like she was swimming through the atmosphere with every motion. She wanted to collapse onto the ground and take the time to acclimate to the oppressive environment, but knew that her time before metamorphosis was more likely to be measured in hours or minutes than in days. After a quick visual inspection to make sure that nothing was damaged, she withdrew the heat resistant tracing module. As expected, the tracker pinpointed Zack as waiting in the clearing where Carmen dropped him off. She smiled at the break in her fortune, hoisted a liquid nitrogen cannister out of the tub and over her shoulder, and moved out of the clearing.

***

Vox Cul-Dar stared at the gouge in the red soil, not knowing what it meant but assuming it was a problem.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “Gamma was here, I can feel it. But something else was, too…”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac, chiming in from Vox’s backpack. “Some of the detritus crushed on the ground is not native to this jungle. It appears to be mechanical in nature, and still partially functional.”

“Where?”

“Twenty meters down the channel.”

Vox followed the track in the ground, stepping over the twigs and flattened grasses. Soon, he found a device made of black metal, crumpled flat by something of immense weight. It was as if an incredibly tall-but-thin tree had crashed violently exactly where Zack’s gear had been dropped, but no sight of the tree remained. The hole in the ground near the start of the channel might have been the location of a stump, but no trace of it remained either. Vox turned his mind from the oddity and turned the remnants of the device with his slender hands.

“It appears to be a robotic parachute. A signal is issuing from it, likely from another device stored within.”

“Intriguing,” said Vox. “Perhaps the signal is how Zack planned on being found again after landing. A third party must be arriving to get him off of Mandrake again. Something happened here, though, making Zack leave the rendezvous point.”

“That is one possibility,” said Rendelac. “You could destroy the signal and prevent there being any chance of rescue. Or, you could keep the signal active to increase the likelihood that Gamma’s rescuers will arrive and have some way of drawing him back to this location.”

“Either way, his fate lies in my hands,” said Vox, sifting through the debris. “This is a golden opportunity, Rendelac. We would do well not to waste it.”

Episode 104: Cold Comfort

The layer of frost from the rim of the tub should not have been possible under normal circumstances. Designed to keep its contents in a permanent deep freeze, the technology was made both for beings from worlds with temperatures that would make humans freeze to death and for people who wanted a semi-portable way to keep large quantities of food on ice. Igneous’ modifications had ramped up its power to compensate for the fact that it wasn’t built for creatures who generated their own heat. At least, not as much heat as she did.

The captain knocked on the lid. After a few moments, the lid cracked open and a burst of warm steam poured out. A bright light shone from within the steam and Igneous lifted herself from the once frosty container. Bright reds and oranges illuminated the cargo bay as the fire beneath her cracked exterior came into sight.

“Your cold tub may need some repairs,” said the captain. “There’s some ice by the seam.”

“That can happen when you open the tub unexpectedly,” said Igneous. “I got out to install one of the liquid nitrogen containers.”

She gestured to the side of the tub, illuminating the shiny cylinder which had been connected by a pipe and valve to the inner workings of the tub. The captain nodded.

“I see. So, some of the coldness got out as you closed the door again, frost generates… still seems sloppy.”

“What is it?”

“We’ll be able to make our approach soon.”

“Fine. Just knock on the tub before you drop me on Mandrake, I’ll be fine.”

“I wanted to tell you that the system is undergoing some upheaval. System-wide communications are down, and just before that happened an order for all civilian ships to return to safe harbor was issued. Since then we’ve detected military action. Veskid may be under assault.”

Igneous’ expression changed, but the captain couldn’t read it. She nodded.

“That’s unfortunate. Hopefully it’s resolved by the time you pick me up.”

“That’s the other issue. We’re going to be dropping you off, but we won’t be able to stay in orbit around the planet without drawing unwanted attention. No port is close enough to Mandrake to register a standard signal, and a light speed message could be intercepted. It might be a long time before we can swing by to get you again.”

Igneous looked at her cold tub.

“We’ll make do,” she said. “If I finish what I’m going to do, I won’t have much liquid nitrogen left, but… I think it should suffice.”

“Are you sure you should be using that? I thought it would make you brittle.”

“I’m tough,” she said. “I’ll stop before I get as brittle as pavement, don’t worry.”

“I think you’re already-”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “If everything goes according to plan, I’ll be back to normal soon.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

Igneous stepped back into the tub.

“Then I’ve already got my coffin for when I need it.”

Episode 103: The Amber View

Vox Cul-Dar stared at the expanse of space. The planet Mandrake filled the lower right-hand quadrant of his window, taunting him with brief glimpses of the vessels and asteroids that allowed everyone but him to be on that side of the planet. He periodically tapped the serrated ridges of his arm against the wall, drumming a tattoo that would start as one of the ancient mantra-pats from his home world. Sometime between the third or fourth repetition he would realize that it was morphing into one of the pop songs that he’d heard among the humans again, a realization that would jolt him back into silence.

His one consolation was that the orbiting was not geosynchronous. If the racing federation would not leave his landing site, then the tedious passage of time would bring the landing site to him. The thought started as a sarcastic barb in a passing conversation with one of the Amber Sting’s crew, but it was becoming more and more viable with every second. Was investigating The Phantom Matador truly worth the three hours that had been spent?

Three military-style fighter vessels careened from the other side of Mandrake and past his window. The flight was over in an instant, and didn’t register as having occurred until it was already over. Vox leaned forward to look back, knowing that the ships would likely already be too far for him to see but curious enough not to care.

“Sir?”

Vox looked back over his shoulder. The Amber Sting’s captain stood behind him. Vox smiled, turned back, and stood at his full height.

“There’s been a problem,” said the captain.

“Does it have anything to do with the ships that just rocketed past my window?”

“Probably. System-wide communications are down. We’re limited to light-speed data and local networking.”

“That’s implausible.”

“Very. Just before communications went off, instructions were being relayed to all ships in the system to make their way to a safe port.”

“Safe port? No, we need to go to Mandrake.”

“I understand, sir. That’s why I bring this trouble to you. The magnitude of the crime for taking you to Mandrake has increased, as has the scrutiny of every ship en route to anywhere. Taking the time to swing by Mandrake will be harder.”

“Then take the more difficult steps to finish the mission.”

“Sir, the price you paid for this job is no longer worth the risk.”

Vox clapped his arms together rapidly, a staccato rhythm that perfectly recreated the mantra-pat from his culture. He focused his mind on his resources.

“I can offer you an extra twenty percent right now. Will that be sufficient?”

“Ordinarily, I’d require an extra thirty-five, but given your situation we can probably meet you part way on this.”

“The magnanimity of humans again rears its head. Without system-wide communications I won’t be able to secure the other fifteen percent until after this situation resolves itself.”

“Don’t worry about that.”

“I insist,” said Vox. “I always pay my debts. In time.”

“Good to hear. Hopefully the racing federation’s investigation will be broken up quickly thanks to the system-wide emergency. Barring any direct intervention from authorities we should be landing quickly.”

Vox nodded, folded his arms, and sat. He again turned to the window and looked toward Mandrake, his attention drawn by strange flashes of light near what few scattering ships he could see. It wouldn’t be long now.

The captain turned to head to the cargo bay. The conversation with the Pyrhian would be more pleasant. She’d already paid extra for the trip as “added security”, and this situation fell directly under those sorts of circumstances. But she should, at least, be informed about the complications.

Episode 94: Traffic Troubles

“We have a problem, sir.”

Vox Cul-Dar turned from the window by his seat and looked into the face of the ship’s captain. He knew that on a larger ship a discussion of problems would have been delegated to an underling, but the other crew were probably busy with essential tasks. Vox stared at the captain with his large, unblinking eyes, knowing that humans found it unsettling. The captain, used to shady employers and employees, took it as his cue to continue.

“We’re approaching Mandrake,” said the captain. “There aren’t any problems with your direct instructions as written, but the situation near Mandrake isn’t ideal for your drop. An alarming number of witnesses hovering near the planet, almost all on the side where you want to be dropped.”

“What sort of witnesses?”

“Mostly people from that group that races asteroids, so there’s a lot of rocks waiting right by where we’d fly, each with one or two petrakinetics. There’s also a few small ships connected to the organization, and one of their security ships. Worse than that, though, there’s a vessel from a news organization, so there’s a reporter mixed in with the witnesses.”

“So it’s more than just Carmen Shift and her friends now,” said Vox.

“You expected this kind of traffic?”

“It’s what brought me here. No matter; I can be seen taking this trip, even if it risks tipping my hand to competitors. Carry out the plans as discussed.”

“We’ll have to wait for a moment when we can carry out your instructions with more discretion.”

“I’m not paying for discretion,” said Vox, lifting one of his serrated arms to point emphatically as he spoke. “I’m paying to be deposited on that planet and picked up later.”

The captain looked at Vox’s insect-like arm and then back at his eyes, not phased by either.

“I think you misunderstand, sir. I didn’t say you had a problem, I said that we had one. We can’t be seen taking you to Mandrake. Unless you want to pay more than it’s worth to give us the license we’d need to make this trip legal, there’s no way we can safely land without causing trouble. We’ll be waiting for the traffic to clear up from a safe distance. With luck they’ll just assume we’re curious racing fans taking a detour from our shipping schedule to get a closer look at what’s happening.”

Vox narrowed his eyes, a habit he’d picked up from humans. He felt anger at the delay, but heard many of Rendelac’s teachings bubbling up in the back of his mind from previous times he’d let his anger carry him away.

“This is unfortunate,” he finally said. “Take your time, but please approach the planet the moment it becomes safe to do so.”

“Thank you,” said the captain, turning to walk toward the cargo hold.

Vox turned back to his window and stared at the stars outside. He wasn’t sure why the racing federation was taking so long on the other side of the planet, but knew that his lead on finding Gamma would evaporate if it lasted too long. Whatever the business was, he hoped it was worth it.

***

“I couldn’t be happier for Andara,” said Carmen, speaking to the reporter over her headset. “I’m glad to see a rookie do so well.”

“Miss Fugue will be happy to hear that,” said the reporter. “It’s got to be a shame to not come in first yourself, though.”

“Oh,” said Carmen, mentally keeping herself from grinding her teeth, “it’s not so bad. I was just racing for fun since I’d pre-qualified. Winning’s not im… winning’s not that important. I can handle not… finishing. It was more important that Xorn’Tal, Flashman and I try to take down the Phantom Matador.”

“And you came pretty close from what I hear,” said the reporter. “If not for the shangmere stowaway, you-”

“Yeah, it’s a real shame,” said Carmen. “I’m just glad he didn’t cross the finish line.”

“This makes the second time an asteroid of his has been captured without anyone being able to contain the Phantom Matador himself. Do you think he’ll ever be captured?”

“If he ever shows his face again, absolutely,” said Carmen. “Hey, this is starting to feel more like a press release than an interview, so could I-”

“Any thoughts on the Federation’s decision to include the Phantom Matador in the official statistics of the Corona Circuit’s races? It’s only been a few hours since they announced the decision, but it’s already-”

Carmen closed the channel, tapped her headset in frustration, and sent a call to Xorn’Tal. The alien plant creature answered almost immediately.

“Greetingage,” he said.

“Did they finally stop peppering you with questions, or did you get mad like I did?”

“Entity-None: angry: like Carmen.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Reporters: inquiry cessation. Discovery theirs: interview mine: difficult.”

“Yeah, I wonder why they felt that way. Any word from Vince?”

“Reporters: inquiry continuation: Vince.”

“He always did like a camera. Any thoughts on how much longer we’ll need to be up here?”

“Police: investigation pends. Asteroid: examination. Unit-Corona Champions: examination: medical.”

“Why haven’t we gotten our medical exam yet?”

“Doctor Zeta: delay. Ruling preference: examination medical: unnecessary.”

“I agree, but the fed’s gotta be sure that we’re okay. We were off the grid for the last third of that race. If nothing else, Zeta could use a petrakinetic scanner and make sure that no one’s being tricked by the Phantom Matador into thinking he’s not there. Last thing we want is for him to get away again.”

“Phantom Matador: escape: fact.”

“Maybe,” said Carmen. “I’m worried about the fact that I didn’t see it happen.”

“Rocksense: trustable.”

“Right, it is,” said Carmen. “I don’t think he could trick out what I was feeling on the rock. But if he could…”

Carmen looked at the plethora of asteroids in the sky above, a hemisphere filled with concerned racing officials.

“I don’t know how he would’ve hidden the bat from all of us. But if he could, I’d be more worried.”

“Likelihood: small.”

“Right,” said Carmen. “I’ve just seen one too many horror flicks where the mutant has one last power that nobody knows about. Like the one where the aquakinetic was also ferrokinetic and could send his mind through copper wires.”

“Movie writing: bad, implausible.”

“I hope you’re right, Xorn’Tal. I hope you’re right.”