Tag Archives: jungle

Episode 162: Sneezing Powder

“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. Nectra gasped and held up her hands as the light and the scent of ionization flooded the air around her. The sounds of cheering Sthenites vanished, and she dropped the staff, not sure what was happening.

Silence ensued.

Carefully, Nectra lifted her eyes to look around. Zack was gone. She took a steadying breath and carefully looked up. The Sthenites were gone, but she felt something brush away from her ears and down her back. Alarmed, she jumped to the side, scooped up the scythe-charged staff, and twirled it toward the ground, stopping just before she realized that it was the same horribly dated green hat that Zack had tossed at her to wear.

She looked up again and listened carefully, hearing the distant murmured hisses and whistles of the Sthenites. She picked up the hat, and noticed a small, folded piece of paper tucked into the devices inside. She withdrew the paper, turned to walk to the shadows in the side of the pit that she’d entered from, but was surprised to see a lack of shade. She filed away that oddity to consider later, and instead moved to Zack’s side of the pit while she unfolded the paper.

She read the short message, and her worried look shifted into a look of surprise, but it was quickly followed by a smile. A sly grin stretched across her bat-like face, and with a surprising amount of grace she began to clamber up the side of the pit.

She reached the top and carefully looked about. Some Sthenites were near the huts in the distance, but none seemed to be actively watching. She had spotted guards on the gates of the city wall itself, and even a few hidden in the foliage around it, but the guards she’d seen were all focused outward and, more importantly, not upward.

She took some rapid, steadying breaths, scrambled over the edge of the pit, and moved to a mud-covered rock surrounded by scraggly shrubs. She awkwardly sat between them, hoping she was out of view from any casual glances in her direction. The wall of the city was just a short sprint away, but there were almost no good hiding places between there and her shrubbery. She looked at the sickly sky and wished that she could fly straight up to the potentially poisonous clouds for cover, but only the most athletic of the shangmere could easily gain more than a few feet with their wings when not in low-gravity conditions, and only dedicated fliers could attain the bird-like grace that a true flight to the safety of the clouds would require.

She was, however, athletic… or at least agile… enough to scale the wall and drop to the other side if she could get to it. Most of the Sthenites she could see were either unarmed, or only casually wielding the most basic of weaponry. She assumed the guards on the wall were still there, but they’d be looking out into the jungle, naturally? There was no way they were looking in, unless they were bored of the jungle, a possibility that Nectra dismissed as ridiculous due to the intrinsically interesting features of jungles. Unfortunately, she was trying to get to the side that they were watching, but with a bit of luck she could make it to the foliage before they riddled her with spears or arrows or throwing knives or whatever the guards might have had on hand.

Nectra took a pair of long breaths, took another quick look around, and inched out of her hiding space between the rubbery bush and the boulders. Free of the potential rustling that the bush might have caused, Nectra raced to the side of a small hit just at the base of the wall.

Some inquisitive trills from the distance suggested that she might’ve been spotted, but she didn’t hear any shouts. Maybe she was misunderstanding the Sthenites, or perhaps they only thought they’d seen an animal, but either way she quietly stepped to the wall of stone surrounding the city. She twirled the staff, bent her knees, and jumped.

The leap easily placed her over halfway up, and the wall’s rocks were rough enough that she could run up them with no issue, requiring only the faintest wing motions to maintain her balance. In a moment she was on top of the wall, with a yellow-feathered and green-scaled Sthenite staring at her in shock.

Nectra shouted in surprise, twirled her staff, and struck the guard on the head with, she was thankful to notice, the end of the staff that didn’t have a glowing blade of energy emerging from it. The guard fell back, hit the ground, and made a panicked whistling noise.

Nectra carefully watched the Sthenite, but it didn’t move. She reached forward to check to see if the creature was still alive, but she heard confused whistles and trills from elsewhere on the wall. She panicked, jumped, opened her wings, and gracefully flew toward the nearby trees. Even if she was spotted by someone on the wall now, or by a scout hiding in the underbrush, she could keep ahead if she just stayed high and hidden.

Nectra banked to the right to move behind a tree, and flew headfirst into a series of tethers and cords. The green and brown strands disconnected from the branches they’d affixed to, snapped down, and wrapped themselves around the Sthenite. Nectra looked around frantically, not sure what was happening, as the net that had ensnared her began swaying back and forth.

Before she could slash the cords with her scythe, a hand grabbed the net, steadied it, and turned it. Nectra found herself hanging upside-down and staring into the face of a green-skinned, not-quite-insectile creature with large eyes who was wearing a simple tunic and smiling genially.

“You are Nectra, yes?”

“Ye-”

“Of course you are. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I was beginning to think that I had my schedule wrong. But if you know what you’re doing, the tea here is never wrong.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry, I believe I have you at a disadvantage. My name is Vox Cul-Dar, and we have a mutual friend named Zack Gamma.”

“You’re a friend of Zack’s?”

The alien chuckled, lifted a hand, and opened it to reveal a gray powder. He breathed across his palm, just a moment before Nectra realized what was happening. She sneezed twice at the dust blown her way, and everything went dark.

Episode 154: Flight Delay

Zack and Nectra continued moving the body of The Phantom Matador. Zack had wearied of transporting The Phantom Matador by lifting his limbs quickly, and Nectra had recommended the switch to carrying the criminal by keeping his arms over their shoulders. Appearing to walk side by side, the three trudge through the jungle. Zack was definitely moving slower, and looking paler. He coughed violently and slowed to a stop.

“Hey, mind if we take another break?” he asked. “This heat’s gettin’ to me… maybe Igneous’ ice tub wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.”

“Ice tub? And no, I don’t mind.”

“Yeah, she was… overheating or something? And so she made or bought a kind of hot tub that was cold. Who knows why.”

“Well, I don’t think we can do that,” she said, awkwardly lowering the Phantom Matador’s body to the muddy floor of the alien jungle. “But we can rest a bit. I can even scout ahead if you’d like!”

“Yeah, sure,” said Zack. “Don’t be too long, though. I dunno what Fletch drugged Matty with but it’s not deadly, so he’ll come to eventually. We should both be on the lookout for that.”

“Right,” said Nectra. “I’ll… get our bearings. Make sure we’re on the right path. Ooh, or maybe ask one of those snake people for directions!”

“I dunno how well that’d go over,” said Zack. “I said you might’ve been involved in those murders. Plus you don’t speak the language, do you?”

“Right, the murders… rest here, I’ll be back.”

Nectra’s wings opened, and she pulled her staff off of her back. Using the leverage that it granted, she easily jumped to a low branch, kicked herself even higher, and began gliding away.

Zack watched the flying shangmere until she was out of sight before turning back to The Phantom Matador, half expecting the criminal to already be up and pointing an energy blade at him. Zack reached into his coat, and pulled out a Purcellian Striker.

“Not a bad idea, imaginary Mat,” he said, charging the Striker and aiming it at his prisoner. In time he found a suitably dry log didn’t look poisonous and he sat upon it. Minutes later he drifted off to sleep.

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack checked his passport again before looking out the window. The pilot for his charter plane was running late, and the other two passengers at the private terminal weren’t talkative. One was a haukreen carrying a glowing glass tube over its shoulder, and the other a human wearing a business suit and checking a watch while reading a small pamphlet on the ecological impact of human civilizations on non-human planets.

An orange skinned vantarian neared, the first that Zack had ever seen with his own eyes. The four-legged creature approached, looking comfortable in a captain’s uniform that looked like it had been designed for humans but altered to accommodate humanoid employees. The vantarian tipped its hat.

“Apologies, everyone,” he said. “We can begin boarding now, there was just a last minute charter service that I needed to attend to. Which one of you is Zack Gamma?”

Zack shifted uncomfortably and looked at the other two passengers, who were similarly looking at each other and him. Zack looked back.

“Who wants to know?”

“Oh, it involves the delay,” said the captain, smiling. “Are you Mister Gamma, then? Someone came here to meet you. Is that fine?”

Zack looked at the captain in confusion before glancing at the entrance to the comfortable sitting area that acted as the private terminal’s waiting area. A grizzled, though well-groomed and decidedly sheepish, Azar stood at the door. He raised a hand in a friendly half-wave. Zack returned the gesture and turned back.

“Yeah, yeah that’s fine. I just go through the double doors when we’re done talking?”

“Oh, yes,” said the captain, turning toward the doors himself. “Take all the time you need, he tipped generously to earn a little extra time for your plane before we take off.”

The vantarian walked toward the double doors and the two other passengers followed, eying Zack and the stranger curiously. Zack watched them go as Azar neared, looking almost apologetic.

“Hello, Zack,” he said. “I found your folder and realized you were slipping off without saying goodbye.”

“I said goodbye last night,” said Zack. “And again before you came out to Ravelar with a former pro-wrestler for your secret vacation, if you’ll recall. I don’t belong here.”

“We’re your friends here, Zack. Seems to me you belong where friends are. Plus, if memory serves, you weren’t thrilled with the plan to head to Ravelar.”

“I was wrong about that,” said Zack. “Zamona wasn’t waiting to get you alone to turn in the bounty. Or if he is, he’s playing a longer game, one I wouldn’t expect him to have the patience for.”

“You don’t give him enough credit, Zack. He’s actually very bright.”

“Maybe not. You could see the silver lining of a smog cloud, though, so forgive me for being paranoid. It’s in the job.”

“One you do very well. Stay safe out there, Zack.”

“And you stay safe here. Take care, okay?”

“I will. Goodbye, Zack. And one more thing?”

“Yeah?”

Azar reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, glowing disk, a coin made of energy. Zack recoiled, but Azar was faster, quickly slipping it into Zack’s hand. The detective almost dropped it in surprise.

“Hey!” he shouted, while his brain processed. “Wow, that’s… that’s heavier than I thought. And… almost hot.”

“Hold onto that for me, would you?” said Azar. “I don’t like keeping all my eggs in one basket. One’s in the bank, and the interest alone is paying for everything here… the other I keep with me. And I think that you should take the third.”

“Azar, that’s crazy. This thing should be-”

“In a bank? In a safe? Zack, it does no good in either of those. If I lose one, I have two others. Just keep it until we meet again.”

“Azar, I appreciate that we’ve been through a lot here, but this is a lot of money. You still don’t know that I won’t just run off with it, abandon you, and drop this in a bank somewhere for myself.”

“Are you saying you will?”

“Well, no… but that’s not really the point, is it? You shouldn’t trust someone with this much money.”

“I shouldn’t,” said Azar. “I will though. Bring it back in one piece for a nice bonus. Or use it for expenses.”

Zack looked at the coin and gulped.

“Azar, this technically makes me one of the wealthiest people ever by proxy.”

“It makes you one of the wealthiest people ever literally, at least while you have it. The oddity with wealth is that you need a place to spend it.”

“I can spend it all I like after I finish this job for the monasteries.”

“You can’t spend it in one place, though,” said Azar. “I’ve looked. Look, this is just for emergencies. And after what I read in that red folder you slid under my door-”

“You’re a fast reader if you read all that already.”

“I was in the habit of double-checking the fine print when I signed on for my hazard pay jobs,” said Azar. “Teleporting rigs don’t build themselves, after all. You need to know what you’re getting into.”

“Fair point. Look, Azar, this is still crazy even if you DO trust me.”

“I’ve earned the right to be eccentric, Gamma, and I’d ask you to respect that. We all have lives we want to live, and I’d like to do things that I like to do. Just like you enjoy helping people, and like Zamona enjoys wrestling. Did you hear about his first match the other night?”

“Yeah, it’s crazy,” said Zack. “He was good, they say… though I think it’s bad for our cover.”

“Of course you do,” said Azar. “Look, it’ll be a while before you can access a bank and take payment from me. Just hold onto this in case you need it, all right?”

Zack narrowed his eyes but Azar stared back with large, friendly eyes that lacked any real concern about the world or the reasonable dangers it contained. Zack eventually closed his eyes.

“Fine,” said Zack. “But you’re takin’ this back as soon as we meet again.”

“Do you think that’s likely? Your notes in the red folder were… thorough.”

“Look, just follow those exactly. I’ll keep in touch eventually, I’ll just have to keep tabs on how it unfolds.”

“Are you sure you can do that? It’s a complicated scheme.”

“Hey, did you forget who you’re talkin’ to?” said Zack, taking a step away and tapping his hat with the coin. “Mind like a steel trap. Look, I don’t wanna delay the fine folks on my plane any more, so…”

“Goodbye, Zack,” said Azar. “And good luck.”

Episode 149: Detour From Memory Lane

The silence that followed Fletch’s question echoed through the clearing. He scratched the back of his neck, looked at the ground, and walked a few steps away from the assassin.

“Well?” she asked.

“I’m thinking.”

“This isn’t the time to play dumb. Tell me now.”

“I don’t know,” said Zack. “I really don’t know.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Then… then I don’t know what to say. Better fry me with your blaster there…”

“Stop it,” said Fletch. “You’re… trying to be noble or help the greater good or something, but stop it.”

“I’m not!” said Zack. “Look, Fletch, I don’t know why the price showed up on my head. I just know that it’s there.”

“Zack, what’ll happen if I know? Will a planet be vaporized if the wrong secret gets out? Will it put me on the trail of a former client who’s also got a bounty on his head? Do you think it’ll make the last member of a dying race be executed somewhere? Were you sworn to secrecy about the Void Pilgrim?”

A flash of neurons zipped through Zack’s brain, and he almost thought he had the shape of a resurfacing memory to hold onto. Before he could grab it, he coughed and spluttered, staggering back. Zack waved his hand.

“Sorry,” he said. “I really don’t know. Look, my walks through memory lane’ve been going on detours lately. Either I did something and I forgot about it, or me being listed there is a mistake. That’s really all I know. Kill me and get it over with, spare me any more of this crazy cold.”

Fletch’s reticle flashed, zipped back and forth as if studying Zack, and went dark.

“Well, you’re either a better liar than my gear can detect… unlikely for a human, but not unprecedented… or you’re telling the truth and just can’t give me the information. You don’t have a cold though.”

“Lady, the way I’ve been breathing lately-”

“I can’t study your blood itself with just my reticle, but you’re not showing any of the most common signs of the cold apart from breathing. You’ve got some strange lung issues, but it doesn’t look like a cold.”

Zack stood up straighter.

“Just how good is that reticle of yours?”

“It’s not bad. If I wasn’t going to kill you in six hours I’d ask you to get your head examined… you’ve sustained a lot of blunt damage there within at least the last fortnight.”

“Thanks for the sympathy. Wait, six hours?”

“The deal stands,” said Fletch. “I’d kill you now if you were lying, but frankly you’re not. Improbable as that is.”

“Wow,” said Zack. “Wow, great. You’re a real stand up gal, you know that?”

Fletch frowned.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been called a gal before.”

“Sorry,” said Zack. “Won’t happen again.”

“I’ll see you in six, Gamma,” said Fletch, turning to walk away and pulling a strange device with a screen out of a compartment on her belt. “Tell your friend thanks for not swooping in here to try and stop me. I still need to repay Miss Shift for that.”

She walked away from the Phantom Matador’s campfire, and soon blended into the shadows before reaching the treeline. Zack shook his head.

“I’ve still gotta get some more yellow for my coat.”

“Yellow?”

Zack turned just in time to see Nectra’s feet touching down at the end of a glide, her staff extending to keep her balance. Zack shook his head.

“Something I was thinking earlier, not important.”

“Who was she?” asked Nectra. “I wanted to fly out and help, but it looked like things were civil after you two started talking. Oh, is she an old friend? An old friend from your agency? Was she sent here for the Phantom Matador, but then you triggered a trap for him and narrowly avoided it while she recognized you, and then you had to explain to her that she might need the bounty, but you need him for your trial, and then her old feelings for you won out leading her to walk away so that you could keep your word to the Sthenites?”

“Nah, nothing that fancy, she just wants me dead. Probably best that you didn’t fly out here. Help me move this body, we’ve only got a six hour head start.”

“Six hours?”

“She gave me six hours in exchange for some information. Turns out I didn’t have the information, but her word’s got more weight to it than most people at the DMA. It’s one of the reasons why she’s the best, I think.”

“Wait, in six hours she’ll just show up again and kill you? Zack, we can’t let that happen. I need you to reopen my case. Or to kill you myself.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Zack, waving his hands in front of the Phantom Matador’s face. “Six hours from now, we’ll be back with the Sthenites, and I’ll be able to hide anywhere I want on this planet.”

***

Fletched walked through the treeline, checking her device. It wasn’t useful for much except for tracking a certain kind of radiation. However, by a fortuitous set of circumstances, the radiation it detected was given off by Samodiva Cannons. Zack had almost ruined everything by not moving quickly enough, even after the Samodiva Cannon had its charging sequence slowed to give any potential victims more time to dodge.

She made her way the short distance to her ship, The Bakekujira. The bone-white protrusions outside the black hull of the vessel were fitted with anti-detection hardware to give her a fighting chance of sneaking past nearly any no-fly zones that might otherwise slow down her missions.

She checked the screen of her radiation meter and shook her head. It would only work across short distances, and the radiation signature wouldn’t last long. Eight hours would have been too risky, after all, but six hours would keep Zack from slipping away one last time.

Episode 142: Knowing What To Look For

“Not much further,” said Nectra, looking over the scanner while perched in the branch of a tree, holding her staff for balance. “He’s only a few hundred yards away.”

“He’s slowing down, then,” said Zack, catching up to the tree and shaking the latest clump of dirt off of his shoe. “Not sure what’ll happen when he decides he’s found a defensible position. I don’t think he likes the idea of being cornered. Hopefully he’ll make a mistake.”

“Is that common?” asked Nectra. “Sorry, I mean… are the mistakes common? I assume that manhunts don’t happen often. Do they? I mean, the DMA has a pretty big percentage of its operations dedicated to it, so I suppose they might. But I was asking about people making mistakes.”

“Well-”

“When they’re cornered. Mistakes when they’re cornered. People make mistakes all the time.”

“They make more when they’re under pressure, and this place is just the kind of pressure cooker that we need. He’s smart, though. He’s not gonna run until he’s exhausted, unless we get more luck than we deserve down here.”

“Ooh, I like that,” said Nectra. “You need to say something like that when you find him.”

“Don’t know about that. Talking’s one of the things he does best, and it gives him an edge. I’ll just let my strikers do the talking.”

“Right, something like that,” said Nectra, nodding eagerly. “In fact… I don’t have anything that could record us catching him. But maybe if I rewire the tracker…”

“Nectra? We’re on a timetable here.”

Nectra fixed a piercing gaze at Zack, and he could almost feel the waves of focus boring into him. Her too-wide mouth broke into a toothy smile as her eyes widened.

“Right! Right, sorry, I’m new to this. Let’s go… this way, he’s this way…”

Nectra jumped from her branch and flew forward, vanishing into the trees. Zack nodded and followed.

***

The Phantom Matador held the hilt of his deactivated energy blade, pushing his back up against the rocky outcropping. He’d actually seen Nectra leaping between trees behind him at one point; his pursuers were closing in. He took a deep breath and readied himself for the great dance, reaching out with his mind to locate all of the rocks and boulders in the area. It would be an inelegant end to his relationship with the detective, and likely with Nectra as well if it came to that, but he was prepared.

A tiny dart lanced from the foliage and connected with his throat. The Phantom Matador gasped, felt his knees weaken, and fell to his knees. His vision blurred, but he could see the leaves of the bushes part. A figure in a blue cysuit emerged. The cysuit was built for stealth, and the simple reticle over her eye told him everything he needed to know even before he realized that she was holding a rifle. He started reaching for the control on his sword, but the woman was too fast and pinned his arm to the stone behind him.

“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood,” she said. “It’s always tempting to see how people do when they’re woozy and trying to operate dangerous equipment. It’ll be easier to move you if you’ve got both of your arms and legs, though.”

“Who… how-”

“Phantom Matador, I’m an operative of the Desperate Measures Agency, and I’m prepared to offer you leniency. I’ve been tracking you for some time now… it’s hard to know where you actually are, but my scanners can pick up petrakinetic frequencies. If you hadn’t just tried to use that fancy brain of yours, I probably would’ve waited all night without knowing that it was you.”

“But… but they-”

“They’re actually easier to track than most people think. They’re energy waves like any other, you just need to know what to look for. The right military hardware makes it easy, and I collect things like that. Now… you’ve got two people tracking you, and I could do very well if I bring all three of you in. So, before I take you back to my ship, I think it’s time that you play bait.”

Episode 120: Trial by Verdict

Zack twirled his Purcellian Striker pistols and scanned the trees around him. He’d waited for more than two hours, and was hoping that he wouldn’t have to wait until the end of the six he’d been given by the Suzerain.

“Should’ve asked Chala for some ice water,” he said.

A distant squawking creature made itself known in the distance.

“I wonder if Chala even has ice on this planet,” he said.

“Good question,” said a voice from above. Zack tensed and started to look up, but not before Nectra dropped onto him from above, slamming into his back and pinning him to the leaf-covered, peaty soil. She twirled her staff triumphantly, and brought it down on top of one of Zack’s arms to keep it from moving the pistol, and one of her clawed feet pinned the other arm. Zack heard a familiar buzz of energy and realized that her staff was likely energized from its contact with him, meaning it had again turned into the Virellium Scythe.

He started to twist his head to look up at the shangmere, but Nectra kicked off his hat and held down his head with her other foot.

“Hello again, Zack,” she said. “You ran off from the cave. It’s a shame you delayed my progress.”

“Nectra, how are you even planning on getting off this world?” Zack asked. “If you kill me, how’ll you get back to Veskid to prove your theory?”

“My theory about Virellium trackers? Well, obviously, we’ll need to take whoever was coming to pick you up. You worked so hard to get to Mandrake, Zack, and a smart guy like you will have a plan to get off again. You probably arranged for a ride. It’s an educated guess, but I feel good about it.”

“Here’s another educated guess for you, then,” said Zack. “You’ve been in contact with The Phantom Matador. What’d you do, fly him all the way down to the planet from Carmen’s asteroid? That must’ve been quite the fall.”

“Oh, I was right about you being smart… yes, he’s been helping me to find you. With my tracker, he’s very capable of figuring out not just where you are but where you’ll be by observing how the signal changes. I can’t condone villainy, of course, but he’d have a huge future as a criminal mastermind if he applied himself.”

“He’s already a criminal,” said Zack. “He’s a stalker and a trespasser, and he also assaulted me with a boulder once. I can see how that last one might not count against him, though, since it seems like the universe has agreed that I’m a fair target.”

“I’m sorry about that,” said Nectra. “But it gets us back on track. Now, I don’t want to go to the trouble of smuggling you off this planet and back to Veskid while you’re dead, but you’ve got a habit of getting away while alive. So… Zack, do I kill you now? How would the DMA do that?”

“I didn’t work with the assassins,” said Zack. “I did the honest jobs. But yes, the assassins would probably kill me now.”

“Oh,” said Nectra, her excited tone suddenly slowing and losing its bright edge. “I see. Yes… well then. I guess this is goodbye, Zack? Zack, I’m… this is embarrassing. I know I just met you yesterday, but I’m really going to miss you.”

“Well, there’s a way other than killing me right now,” said Zack.

“Good!” said Nectra. “I mean… what?”

“I need to know some things first. When the Phantom Matador was using your tracking device, or helping you to use it, or whatever, did he kill anyone?”

Zack listened to Nectra’s breathing. It slowed. The sounds of jungle insects and beasts filled the air.

“I think so,” she said. “I think he used that energy sword of his. He wouldn’t say it directly, but I saw the bodies whenever I left. All he said was that they ‘saw him’ and he ‘needed to get away.’ They might have killed him, Zack.”

“I get that,” said Zack. “And they might’ve. They’re not unreasonable, though. Look, Nectra, I need your help in catching The Phantom Matador.”

“What? But he’s helping me.”

“Right, but he’s killed Sthenites. Nectra, he’s a murderer. Beneath that dark, mysterious persona, The Phantom Matador is a parasite on any society he’s in. I mean, in less than twenty-four hours he became this region’s most notorious murderer, and that was almost pinned on me.”

Zack felt the claws at the back of his neck loosen and lift. He looked over his shoulder and saw Nectra, looking confused.

“He said I should kill you here. He said you’d cause trouble for us if I saved killing you for later.”

“I would,” said Zack. “He’s right about that. But that’s not really the issue, is it? You shouldn’t kill me at all, Nectra. And the Matador’s gotta face justice from the Sthenites. One other issue: these bushes are filled with sthenite warriors. They’re mostly here to make sure I don’t escape… they didn’t believe my story about a winged lady swooping in to hunt me down… but they’re also here for you. Kill me, and they’ll attack you.”

“Zack? You set a trap for me?”

“No, no I set a safety net for myself. The flip side is this: I’m still in the middle of a weird trial thing. Help us catch The Phantom Matador, and I’ll agree to combat against you overseen by the Suzerain of the Sthenites, a combat that the Suzerain declared to be a sufficient conclusion to my trial if you turned out to exist. You win that combat, I’ll be your prisoner. I win, you leave me alone.”

“And if I try to abduct you or kill you now, I lose either way,” said Nectra, sounding crestfallen.

“Well… don’t look at it like that,” said Zack. “I’m the one in a trap here. You could always just fly away. So… help us find The Matador?”

Nectra closed her eyes and took some deep breaths. Soon she opened them again and nodded.

“Sure,” she said. “Let’s find that Phantom.”

Episode 100: Jungle Jaunt

The village was designed like a fort, with an outer wall made of sharp, interlocking trees and massive boulders. Zack assumed they were the remains of trees, at least; they looked less like the tree he’d used as a bridge and more like the trees he’d hidden inside to escape the Haktorash with Chala, but they were much larger and darker. The distant sounds of chirps, hisses and trills from Sthenites grew nearer as they approached the city, but Zack was sure that they were deceptive. He might have imagined the motionless guards in the bushes, but he doubted it. Chala didn’t wait long enough for him to take second looks, though, so he couldn’t be sure.

“I need to come back out here for a casual walk,” he said. “Figure out where everything is.”

“You don’t want to do that,” Chala said, stepping out of the tree line and approaching the wall, moving quickly over the red soil. Zack saw the fastest flicker of a serpentine head peaking over the wall as they left the jungle. He took a quick look back at the foliage.

“Need more yellow in my trench coat,” he said.

“What’s that?”

Zack started to repeat himself, but two massive boulders began to roll to the side. Giant sthenites, with orange scales and scarlet feathers, coiled into view, creating a titanic gate. Zack stopped walking and watched the massive snakes, each easily half as tall as the wall itself. Chala looked over her shoulder.

“Tourist.”

***

Captain Ortega watched the three researchers carefully. Two of them pushed a small trolley that carried a crate, a crate from Captain Calen’s Scuttler. Ortega clenched his jaw at the sight of it. He didn’t know what was happening to Calen and Trell yet, but knew that he wouldn’t want to be the person telling them that the Dyson Empire had plundered their ship.

He also prayed that no one ever found the frozen goblet she kept hidden away.

“Thanks for helping us out today,” said one of the researchers, a blond-haired man in a white contamination suit. “It’s amazing to have someone with your experience helping us out.”

“I didn’t have many options,” said Ortega. “My primary mission is to keep Doctor Rogers contained while I take him back to the Astroguard. Your would-be Emperor may not permit the second part of that mission, but I’ll definitely help with the first, Doctor…?”

“Williams, Gregor Williams. These are Doctor Amelia Degnan and Doctor Clarence Carnegie.”

“We’ve looked over all of your recommendations for waking Doctor Rogers,” said Doctor Carnegie. “We have everything prepared to reactivate his systems.”

“If you have any other recommendations during the procedure, feel free to let us know,” said Doctor Degnan. “We understand that a rigid set of guidelines would have potential for manipulation by someone with this degree of intelligence, so if any potential for danger exists as the situation unfolds, please inform us and we’ll adjust the procedure.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Ortega. “It’s a relief to not have someone being unreasonable about this kind of thing.”

“We work to understand new or alien technologies, and Doctor Rogers’ robotic body counts,” said Doctor Degnan. “Your expertise with his criminal activities, while not technological, is comprehensive and makes you the leading expert in the dangers that he represents. Shall we begin?”

“Whenever you’re ready,” said Ortega. His adrenaline had been slowly rising since they entered the room. All he needed was an opening after Doctor Rogers came back to life, an open door to the lab after Rogers was aware of what was happening. The researchers appeared willing to follow his instructions… could he push his luck far enough to make them take Rogers’ helmet out of the room?

Doctor Carnegie went to a hydromill installed on the far side of the room. Ortega assumed that it wasn’t connected to this vessel’s primary water supplies, and if he hadn’t been hoping for some easy way for Doctor Rogers to escape he would make sure it was the case before the experiment started.

Doctor Degnan moved to a control panel, one that would allow her to manipulate the flow of water from the hydromill and collect any unexpected data. She also activated a view screen, and Harold Zamona’s towering figure appeared on the wall, overseeing the situation. Ortega knew that it didn’t actually change his situation, but Zamona’s presence did make the room more tense.

“When you’re ready, Doctor Williams,” said Doctor Degnan.

Doctor Williams nodded and approached the storage crate on the research platform in the center of the room. He carefully broke the crate’s vacuum seal and removed the lid. Gently, almost reverently, he reached into the crate and pulled out the large, oblong dome that rested within.

“Preparing the hydromill transfer,” said Williams, reaching for a hose at his platform.

“Wait,” said Ortega. “That’s not-”

“Hydromill active,” said Doctor Carnegie.

“Begin the hydration.”

“Wait!” said Ortega.

The three researchers froze, each watching Captain Ortega carefully.

“You really don’t…” he started, words failing him.

“Captain Ortega, what’s wrong?” asked Doctor Carnegie. “Is there any danger?”

“Is… no. No, there’s no danger.”

“Then can we get back to the experiment?” asked Doctor Degnan.

“No point,” said Captain Ortega. “That’s not Rogers’ head.”

The three researchers all slowly turned to look at the glass dome in Doctor Williams’ hand. In his view screen, Zamona cradled his head for a moment before reaching for the screen controls, deactivating his end of the feed.

“Are you sure?” asked Doctor Williams.

“Well, look at it,” he said. “It looks like the top of a fancy water cooler.”

“I… suppose it might…” said Doctor Degnan.

“It looks like the one attached to the hydromill.”

Doctor Carnegie looked to his left at the hydromill’s beverage dispenser and took a surprised step back. Captain Ortega looked between the three researchers.

“So… if by some chance all those crates at your feet have spare hydromill parts in them instead of pieces of Doctor Rogers… where is he?”

***

Pilot Tan finished the modifications to his vessel’s Hydromill, connecting the “water cooler” more directly to the ship’s primary functions as per the instructions that had been echoing in the back of his head since landing at Xol’s ship. The Soul Survivor’s Plan A had been thwarted by Captain Ortega, and the restorative properties of Ortega’s helmet had muted the instructions long enough for Tan to miss the window on Plan B, brilliant though that plan would have been. Plan C had been perfect to implement when the echoes of the Soul Survivor’s manipulated Cypulchral Signal came back to his mind.

Tan had almost failed in his duties as a sleeper agent after he reawakened, too. The plan had suggested taking use of the ‘Tight Schedule’ trouble phrase, but had also been based on the belief that Tan wouldn’t have the chance or need to enact that protocol until later. Tan should have known to use the different phrase… but in the end, everything worked out.

The hydromill kicked into overdrive and bubbles began to surge furiously inside the dome that represented the Soul Survivor’s head, now attached to the machinery in Tan’s ship. After a few moments, the room’s communication channels kicked in.

“Excellent work, Tan,” said the familiar, sonorous tenor. “I didn’t know if my posthypnotic commands would survive beyond the purging that Ortega’s helmet would provide.”

“They did,” said Tan. “I can’t say that I liked selling him up the river like that, and technically this action makes me a traitor to the Dyson Empire, but it’s the least I could do to help you out.”

“Of course,” said The Soul Survivor. “Oh, these ship readings are delightful. We made it to the Veskid System this quickly? Amazing… Tan, you and I have much to discuss.”

Much earlier, on another world…

“My recommendation is Ravelar,” said Harold Zamona, looking over the screen built into the glass of the table. “We’ll be hard to track once we’re there, and we’re already difficult to track so we might be gone entirely, especially if the trip is financed in my name.”

“Ugh, there?” said Zack.

“Don’t want to go to Ravelar?”

“It’ll be so humid,” said Zack. “Horrible for my usual wardrobe. I decided a long time ago that I’d never be caught dead in a jungle on jobs like these, but I suppose just once wouldn’t kill me.”

“Most of the jungles are all underground, though,” said Sister Barris, tapping the table to read more information on the world. “There’s no real BristleCorp presence, too, and that could help us.”

“It’s got no DMA either, and police who look the other way a little too easily,” said Zack. “Don’t get me wrong, a pinch of corruption in a police force can do a lot of good, especially for jobs like this, but get too much and we’ll be sold to the highest bidder minutes after we land with no DMA there to protect us.”

“You really think it’ll be that bad?” asked Azar, trying to look around the three people on his payroll.

“I think it’s a risk,” said Zack.

“Zack is just letting us know about the worst case scenario,” said Harold.

“And letting you know that the worst case scenario isn’t unlikely,” said Zack. “There’s a lot of crime there. Most of the planet’s run by a Pyrhian mob boss named Murk. He causes a lot of problems for the DMA on Veskid, and that’s where we’re strongest. Not sure I want to see him running unchecked.”

“He’ll be checked by me,” said Harold.

“Raw strength might not be what we want in a place like this,” said Barris. “Subtlety is essential here, and the tourism industry, sketchy though it is, is designed for rich people who don’t want questions asked.”

“The hotels do look nice,” said Azar. “I think I could enjoy it there. For a while at least.”

“All right,” said Zack. “Let’s assume you go there. Harold, you’d be along for security?”

“Naturally.”

“And I’d stay here to work on legal action against BristleCorp,” said Barris. “They’ve clearly put an assassination order onto you, Azar, and while a case against them will be hard, laying the early groundwork without them catching on shouldn’t present an overabundance of difficulties.”

“Assuming they don’t already plan on us doing something like that,” said Zack. “This is a new situation, but they’re not stupid. And it’s not like there’s a single person you can trick or bump off to make this work. You can’t shoot a corporation.”

“Is that Faulkner?” asked Harold.

“What? No, it’s reality,” said Zack. “Barris, you can probably get the preliminaries set up, but they’ve likely already taken steps to cut any paper trails to link them to the assassination attempts.”

“Isn’t that what you’re for?” asked Harold. “Find the dirt on them. Reconnect the paper trails, find evidence that proves that only they would have the resources to coordinate this kind of attack on an individual, and prove that they’re the only one with the motive.”

“Motive’s the hard part, actually,” said Zack. “Pettiness is hard to prove for a corporation since they’re usually more concerned with making money than getting revenge for lost money, the actions of individuals within a company notwithstanding. But yes, I’ll be doing a bit of that. It’ll just be tricky to arrange that kind of investigation from Ravelar.”

“Why’re you going to be in Ravelar?” asked Harold. “I’ll be there. Don’t think I can handle anything that comes our way?”

Zack tapped the table and stared at Harold.

“I just… assumed I’d be there as well,” said Zack. “But I suppose you and Azar can be there by yourselves. Taking the resort vacation spots all for yourself.”

“Just how it turned out with our skill sets,” said Harold, smiling.

“Right,” said Zack. “Barris stays here, Harold and Azar can live it up in Ravelar, and I’ll go between both places while researching.”

“Do we need that kind of attention drawn to you, Zack?” asked Barris. “Traveling is noticeable, and Harold already tracked you down once. Someone else might do it again.”

“Maybe,” said Zack, watching the former wrestler carefully. “But I’ll feel better if I can keep an eye on the situation from both sides. Just in case.”

Episode 80: Desperation and Danger

Zack tumbled through the air, experiencing the vertigo-inducing transition between jumping away from something and falling to something else without changing direction. The leap from Xorn’Tal’s asteroid had been uneventful, a rare problem-free attempt at executing a plan without difficulty.

Zack’s robotic parachute was happy. It had worried, to the extent that its code allowed worry, that the interruption of Zack’s initial jump would have prevented it from achieving its planned operation. The only change now was that its operator had, apparently, somehow moved to another, leafier asteroid without requiring its services. An analysis of the space around its operator revealed an abnormal asteroid density in the immediate vicinity, but nothing in the way of the current descent.

Zack double checked his heat shield to make sure that it was active, unsure of what he would do in the event that it wasn’t. There had been rare accounts of drops from this height without a reentry shield, but no humans had done it to his knowledge. Fortunately the shield was holding up nicely.

The jets within the parachute kicked in and began steering him toward the still distant ground. Flashes of orange and red flame began to appear in his vision, flaring into existence mere inches from his face and, when he looked reflexively, all around him. The flames of reentry licked hungrily against the invisible shield provided by his reentry device, and he wasn’t sure if the temperature actually began to increase or if he was just imagining it becoming warmer as the wreath of flame about him became more constant and steady.

Zack wasn’t sure how long the fall would take, but dimly remembered that a fall from the generally agreed upon boundaries of “space” for most human-friendly worlds would take three to five minutes for an unpowered craft that was dropping like a stone, but since he had a smaller surface area than an escape pod and since the robotic parachute would be steering him and slowing his descent he expected to take over a quarter of an hour once he was more firmly within Mandrake’s atmosphere.

He could already see the brilliant greens and vibrant oranges and reds of the jungles that infested the planet. Far denser than the recreation of the underjungles of Ravelar that Murk had shown him, Mandrake’s vegetation was what had drawn humans to the Veskid system in the first place after long-range space probes had revealed its presence. After getting closer and seeing the heart-pounding reality of a jungle more dangerous than anything they had prepared for, the settlers instead opted to take a closer look at the comparatively barren, but still usable, world of Veskid, effectively agreeing to the Desperation that their first city was named for when they crashed upon approach. It was old hat among the citizens of Veskid to remark how the settlers who founded the city had chosen desperation over danger.

Historical goals are long lasting ones, however, and in the ensuing decades Mandrake had been examined more carefully. It would never be a friendly place, but over time numerous expeditions, adventure seekers, scientific researchers and insane treasure hunters had gone there, mostly to be heard from again.

The parachute beeped and propelled Zack to what he was prepared to call the west, though he had been disoriented by the drop. He wasn’t sure where Carmen had set up for his landing sight and ultimate rendezvous point, but he started watching eagerly, hoping to see some clearing ahead even though he knew he was still miles away from achieving planetfall.

***

“More fire from the sky, Chala.”

Chala turned from her work at the primitive forge and saw Baurik nearing. The bright feathers and serpentine scales that covered him still seemed surprising, though fortunately no longer threatening, not since the inter-tribal peace began.

“What sort of fire?”

“Small,” Baurik said. “We almost missed it. I am bound to report this to the Suzerain, as you know.”

“I know,” said Chala, turning back to the forge and shaking a joint into place. “I’m surprised you haven’t already.”

“Every fire brings change,” said Baurik. “As an agent of change, you have the most to lose.”

“Don’t worry about me,” said Chala. “I’ve got everything under control.”

“The Suzerain has everything under control,” said Baurik. “And she agrees with you when you petition for peace… individually. As do I. But the Suzerain cannot… will not… continually leash the tribes from pursuing starprey. She would rather put out brushfires than the sun.”

“I can’t blame her,” said Chala. “I’ll talk to whoever it is. I can convince them to leave. It’s probably just another treasure hunter.”

“And if you can’t?”

“I sided with the Suzerain, and she’s got my back when I play nice,” said Chala. She grabbed her bow… the alien device of metal and plastic that Baurik still found hard to imagine. Chala had explained the process of molding “plastic” and other materials, building component parts up instead of whittling component parts down, but it still felt wrong seeing such a common device in an uncommon way.

“You will… encourage him more strenuously?”

Chala looked at Baurik. There was a trill in the back of his throat that suggested something like coyness, or teasing. She smiled and shook her head.

“I’m in the tribes now, Baurik,” she said. “If he doesn’t go when I first warn him, then I get to hunt starprey.”

Episode 74: Instruction: Jump

Zack released the vine and dropped to Xorn’Tal’s asteroid. The rock beneath his feet was comforting, and the strange plants growing about its surface were strangely welcoming. He’d been in deep forests before, and if Murk was to be believed he’d experienced the Underjungles of Ravelar, but this felt safer. The vivid flora on this asteroid weren’t growing from the asteroid but rather growing upon it, with unearthed roots stretching across the surface. The environment felt like a garden or greenhouse, strangely even warmer than the chilly atmosphere on Carmen’s asteroid.

He took a step and the vines and leaves in front of him began pulling back and shifting to the side, creating a gentle, meandering path. Zack laughed and felt genuine relief about being in a strange, new environment where not everything was calculatingly menacing. He started walking along the path, picking up his pace as he went. The path revealed by the plants was a fast one, and generally avoided the trickier rises that Zack might have been tempted to take to save time. Even the rumbles as Xorn’Tal’s asteroid bumped into the Phantom Matador’s seemed distant and harmless.

He continued walking until a particularly dense clump of bushes parted in front of him, revealing Xorn’Tal, a root-like entity that shared elements with pitcher plants and avocados in Zack’s mind. Zack almost stumbled back, surprised to so suddenly be right in front of the alien.

“Gamma: welcome. Hold.”

“What?” asked Zack.

“Hailing: Carmen,” said Xorn’Tal. Zack noticed the blinking device near what might have been one of Xorn’Tal’s necks, a device that resembled the communication devices he’d seen so far.

“Present: your guest,” said Xorn’Tal. “Safe.”

Zack smiled. It was strange to think that he was about to get down to Mandrake without any more complications.

“Negative: here,” said Xorn’Tal.

“What?” asked Zack. “What’s negative?”

“Carmen: belief,” said Xorn’Tal. “You: there.”

“I’m… where? Back on the Phantom Matador’s asteroid?”

“Asteroid: Carmen’s,” said Xorn’Tal. “Belief: Carmen, you: with Carmen. Belief: me, you: me. Belief: me, eye-fronds: mine.”

“As opposed to Carmen’s eye-fronds?”

“Ha,” said Xorn’Tal, though the translator gave it a hollow, metallic sound no different from the rest of his monotone. Zack couldn’t tell if Xorn’Tal actually found it humorous, or if the laugh was sarcastic.

“Why does she think I’m there?”

“Feels: others,” said Xorn’Tal. “Two.”

“Two? Nectra didn’t take me back to…”

Zack retraced the scene in his mind. There hadn’t been only two people on the asteroid when he’d left. There’d been three. And Nectra wouldn’t leave someone to just die, not if Zack was any kind of judge of character.

“I forgot the Phantom Matador,” he said. “Xorn’Tal, you’ve gotta tell Carmen that it’s not me, it’s the Phantom Matador! Nectra must’ve rescued him after I forgot about him when I was trying to escape!”

“Nectra: good person?”

“Debatable,” said Zack. “Tell her.”

“Phantom Matador: with you,” Xorn’Tal said, speaking into the “headset.” “Entities Nectra and Phantom Matador: your rock.”

A few moments of silence passed while Xorn’Tal listened to a reply. He rolled in place, facing Zack as well as he could.

“Carmen: understands,” he said. “Instruction: from Carmen: jump.”

“What?” asked Zack.

“Gamma: Jump,” said Xorn’Tal. “Sky-dive: perform. Seek: thrill.”

“But…”

“Carmen task: handle Carmen. Carmen: capable. Carmen message: Jump!”

Zack looked at Xorn’tal and then back at the asteroid. He closed his eyes for a second, took a deep breath and turned back to the alien plant.

“Right,” he said. “It’s a racer problem now. Good luck putting this guy away, he’s tricky. He can… he can be in two places at once. Or… he can make illusions or something. He’s either making himself invisible and making it appear like he’s somewhere else, or he’s clouding people’s minds when he’s nearby.”

“Gratitude,” said Xorn’Tal. “Task: clear path. Follow. Handy launch point: not far.”

Branches and leaves parted, revealing another clear route. Zack looked at it and nodded.

“Good luck out here,” said Zack. “Sorry that the race didn’t go well.”

“Race: went well,” said Xorn’Tal. “False racer: apprehended.”

“Not yet he isn’t,” said Zack. “But here’s hoping.”

Zack turned and ran along Xorn’Tal’s path, putting Carmen out of his mind as he worried about his jump.

Episode 26: Lair of the Lusca Vine

Zack was pulled along the rough floor, the roots and rocks of the artificial underjungle shaking and scraping him. The thin vine around his ankle felt weak enough that he might be able to break it off if he could get a moment to work at it, but the rubble was disorienting. He only had one hand to work with as the other hand was still clutching the lumisphere, something he was determined not to lose.

“This way, human,” said Igneous’ voice. “It’s dangerous that way.”

The voice was beginning to sound less and less like Igneous. He had no idea how that plant worked. Either he was getting out of its range, or the plant was recognizing that Igneous’ voice wasn’t what he wanted to hear and was trying to shift to something else that might be more persuasive.

The tiny strand of the Lusca Vine around his ankle snapped up suddenly, and Zack was tossed into the air. He collided with two other, larger vines that were stretched across the path between two trees. One coiled around the hand that held the lumisphere, the other twisted around one of his legs. Held in the air for a moment, the tiny vine shot up and wrapped around his ankle again as the three vines pulled him back down to the ground.

The rough track along the floor resumed, now with three vines the size of small tree branches holding him to the ground. There was something different about the larger branches, something beyond their raw strength, like they were pinching him repeatedly. A quick look to the hand with the lumisphere confirmed strange growths on the vine, growths that reminded him of the suckers on an octopus or squid’s tentacles.

“I’m over here, human,” said Igneous’ voice. “This way!”

“Workin’ on it!” shouted Zack. He grabbed at the vine that gripped the hand with the lumisphere, but he wasn’t able to loosen it. He only had moments to try, though, as a sudden collision between his back and a stumpy stalagmite shook his hands apart. Twisting one of the vines off would be tricky even if it wasn’t actively moving and shaking him, but it didn’t seem possible as it was.

He looked down the path the vines were following, trying to get his bearings. He twisted to avoid another rough impact with an impending tree and snapped his arm around it as he was pulled past. He shouted in pain as the sudden stop jolted his shoulder and the vines continued pulling. Zack tried to pass the lumisphere to the hand around the tree, but the vine pulling the arm made it impossible for the two hands to join under Zack’s terms.

“Where are you?” said Igneous’ voice.

“Closer to the Lusca vine, you lousy flytrap!”

The thicker vine around Zack’s leg loosened slightly, giving Zack a chance to secure his grip on the tree. The vine was only repositioning itself, however, and slithered around him enough to get a grip on his leg and lower torso as well. Zack shouted in pain as the pull of the vines increased dramatically, making his grip loosen.

“Flytrap?” came Igneous’ voice, echoing through the darkness. “What’s a flytrap?”

“It’s what YOU are, you stupid…”

Zack paused. The voice was sounding more like Igneous than it had since he first heard it.

“Igneous, is that you? Really you?!”

“Of course, you foolish human,” came a shouted reply. “Help me find you! I think I’m getting closer, but everything echoes down here. The acoustics are terrible.”

Zack remembered the plant insisting that the acoustics were bad, but shook the thought away. Any shot at survival was worth taking at this point.

“Some sort of vine thing’s got me!” shouted Zack. “It’s-”

A sudden concerted tug from the vines yanked Zack from the tree, and he shouted as the rough ride through the underjungle resumed. Moments later, Zack was pulled into a clearing of sorts. Other plants seemed to stop at an ill-defined treeline that surrounded a crack in the ground, a crack ringed by three stalagmites. And within the crack, made visible by the dim light of Zack’s lumisphere, was the Lusca Vine.

A writhing mass of vegetation all connected to an oblong, lumpy root in the center reminded Zack of a potato. The roots and vines emerging from it swatted the air, as three larger ones shot toward Zack as soon as the light from his lumisphere entered the clearing. Zack saw the sucker-like growths on these largest vines were more well developed than the ones that, so far, had merely been pinching him. They looked like tiny mouths with tiny mandibles, some meant for piercing others meant for grinding. These largest vines moved slowly, and looked less capable of entwining or ensnaring prey, but as one lifted into the air over Zack he wondered if, perhaps, the largest vines had a different purpose.

The raised vine positioned itself carefully and Zack mentally prepared to be clubbed by the equivalent of a small tree when suddenly the vines paused. The sudden stillness was eerie after the writhing movement moments before. Zack wasted no time in trying to pull the vines off of him, but the vines remained tight.

Then he smelled the smoke and saw the light. A dull, red light entered the clearing as a rocky figure pushed its way beyond the treeline, the branch it pushed out of its way beginning to smoulder and smoke. Zack gasped in recognition as Igneous’ light divided the Lusca Vine’s attention. A series of vines all shot toward her, and with her slower speed they easily ensnared her… before quickly recoiling as they began to smoke. Other vines moved toward her, but each of them started to catch fire at they came in contact with her as she slowly pushed her way toward Zack.

Zack felt the heat as Igneous approached, and found it hard to look away from what looked like a walking pile of volcanic rock barely holding itself together. His attention was brought back to his impending demise by the sound of creaking and groaning wood that came from the vine preparing to club him. The living cudgel sped down just as Igneous jumped into its path, grabbing it as it collided with her.

The vines surrounding Zack loosened and surged toward Igneous, each beginning to sizzle as they came in contact with her. She ignored them and wrestled with the largest vine. She looked over her shoulder at Zack, scowling from the effort.

Zack took the hint, scrambled to his feet, and ran. The two other clubbing vines attempted to smash him as he approached the treeline, but neither one had positioned itself as carefully as the first did, and with their slower speeds Zack was able to easily dodge them. He entered the jungle, held the lumisphere in front of him, and ran.

“This way, human!” came Igneous’ false voice from the distant telepathic plant.
Zack hoped that the plant’s voice wouldn’t prove to be disorienting as he tried to get away from the Lusca Vine. His running slowed as he realized that the jungle had other dangers, and he wasn’t sure which way to go.

While he was planning his next move, Igneous ran up behind him. She pointed and Zack moved. She was moving slower than he could, even slower than he remembered her, but she was stable. Zack looked back and saw many vines cautiously following.

Remembering Murk’s comment that the Lusca Vine was drawn to the light and deciding that Igneous would be light enough for the present, he squeezed the lumisphere until it reached its brightest setting. He tossed the lumisphere through the underbrush and was pleased to see the vines surging in the direction of the light that wasn’t accompanied by Igneous’ oppressive heat. Zack smiled, and turned back to follow Igneous’ path, hoping that he’d bought them some time.

“You’re getting close, human,” said Igneous’ voice, but from the darkness ahead.

“Igneous, wait!” said Zack.

Igneous didn’t slow down in time, and the vice-like maw snapped from the darkness, clamping onto her arm. Igneous looked at it for a second as the plant began to smoke before deciding that it was worth her time to pry the plant’s mouth open again and push it to the side. The plant recoiled, and Igneous and Zack passed it safely.

Soon, they reached the very door that Zack had found before hearing Igneous’ voice from the darkness. It was broken, though, ripped from its hinges by something from the other side. A staircase with a dim light existed beyond. Zack took an eager step through the door and collapsed onto the staircase, finally free from the recreation of the underjungles of Ravelar.

Igneous leaned against the door frame, exhausted.

Zack took a moment to look at Igneous. He could tell it was her, but she’d never looked this way. Extreme cracks covered her surface, and the glow from her eyes and the tips of her crown of stone were intense. A distinct odor of brimstone filled the air, a scent he could notice now that the overpowering aroma of the jungle was behind them.

“Igneous,” he said. “I can’t believe that you’re here. Listen, I don’t know if you’re interested in the bounty on me, but one way or another I’m grateful. A bullet from the DMA almost seems like fun compared to… well, you saw it.”

“I told you before, human,” said Igneous, slowly. She took a deep breath and her internal glow intensified momentarily. “I… owed you. I’m not… eager to collect… your bounty.”

“Oh?” said Zack. “When was that?”

“When I told you about… the bounty.”

Zack stared at Igneous and frowned.

“You did, didn’t you. You said I’d be dead in twelve minutes.”

“Of course I did,” said Igneous. “Are you more of… of a simpleton than you… than you appear?”

Zack shook his head.

“I think… I think I’ve been having problems remembering things lately.”

Episode 25: A Voice in the Dark

Carmen paced in the police station’s waiting room, too exhausted to sit still. She’d searched the hangar where she’d woken up, but didn’t have any clue where to begin looking for Zack. She decided that checking with the professional law enforcement for Helix would be more effective than her own efforts, even though Zack had told her that he was worried that any contact with law enforcement would lead to his swift capture. If she’d known how long she’d have to wait in such an unpleasantly lit, stale room she might have reconsidered.

She knew she only had three days before her next race, and she’d been planning on spending at least some of the time before then practicing. She wondered, not for the first time, how horrible it would make her if, after two days, she gave up looking and focused on the race. Looking for someone who might be dead felt like a waste, and putting a race on hold for someone who might just be missing felt like even more of a waste. In the less-than-legal races she experienced back in the Penumbra League, there would’ve been no question; the team or family or gang would come first, the race would come later. Still, races in the Penumbra League could be formed, cancelled or rescheduled at the drop of a hat since there weren’t corporate sponsor deals on the line and media coverage.

She wondered, not for the first time, just how much of a sell out she was after three years, and how much selling out a person could do while still being cool. Not peer pressure cool, but internal, self-analyzed cool.

“Ms. Shift?”

Carmen paused mid-pace. A human woman wearing the green uniform of Helix’s police had stepped behind the force-shield protected service desk. Her helmet obscured most of her head, but left her face visible. It was emblazoned with a shield that contained the image of a star, which in turn contained the image of a double helix. The helix was set over the drawing of a thin scroll or banner that said Officer Tacara, followed by a long number that Carmen didn’t have the patience to read. She decided that the badge’s logo looked more impressive as the three-foot tall brass carving on the wall behind the desk. Carmen changed directions and approached the officer expectantly.

“Yes?”

“We were able to find some traces of your car on the ground outside Helix, but nothing that suggests where it might be now,” said Officer Tacara. “The hangar ports on that side have all either been searched remotely or aren’t in active use. More to the point, we looked into the hangars on landing fifty-three, but found nothing.”

“Are you sure?” asked Carmen. “The elevator definitely said fifty-three.”

“We personally sent officers to check landing fifty-three on the west side of Helix,” said Tacara. “Only seven of the original twelve hangars on that side are accessible anymore, the others were all decommissioned and sealed off.”

“Could someone be using one of the hangars that you think might be sealed?”

“Maybe,” said Tacara. “In fact, we’ve found some smugglers using sealed hangars before. We’re looking into the possibility, but opening sealed parts of Helix takes time; most of them were closed off due to safety concerns that need to be addressed.”

“Well, keep looking,” said Carmen. “Someone in Helix stole my car.”

“Ma’am, we’re doing everything we can,” said Tacara. “On another note… we found the remains of the tractor beam that you say acquired your car, and the fragments of Helix’s wall that held it in place.”

“So, you can confirm my story?”

“Mostly. Analysis of the rubble, and the portion of the wall it fell from, are consistent with the sort of molecular debonding that occurs with petrakinetic energy.”

Carmen drummed her fingers on the portion of the desk that was on her side of the force shield.

“I might’ve forgotten to mention a few things… but we were under attack. What was I supposed to do?”

“I’m sure you did what you thought was necessary,” said Tacara, making a note on the desk’s terminal. “The investigation will likely find that you’re in the clear, but it’s possible that the city of Helix will need to fine you for damages if it’s determined that you went over and above the necessary actions .”

“Right, sure, if that happens I can be reached through the racing federation.”

“We’ll be in touch, then,” said Tacara. “Do you have transportation back to Veskid City from here?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” said Carmen, turning for the exit. She hadn’t come in with high hopes of success given the state of Helix, but ultimately her car was replaceable. As she left the station and stepped onto the street, she wondered how long she’d have to wait, but as she passed one of Alpha Street’s alleys, the answer came almost immediately.

“I’m surprised that you risked blowing Zack’s cover over a car,” came a voice from the darkness between buildings. “Why would you do that?”

Carmen looked into the darkness.

“Who’s there?” she asked.

“Me,” said a voice behind her. Carmen spun and looked into the eyes of Fletch. Her blue suit crackled with energy as the stealth functionality powered down and the dangerous blaster in her hands began to power up.

“How…?”

“Ventrilospeak bounces my voice, and sneaking up on people is simple. Where’s Zack?”

“So the bounty’s still on his head?”

“Of course,” said Fletch. “It won’t leave. It’ll hound him until his dying day.”

“Awesome,” said Carmen. “Sorry, this was the fastest way I could think of checking to see if you people had found him or not.”

“What?”

“I figured Zack knows how you people work, so if he was worried about the DMA listening in on the police then it was probably right. So I figured talking to the police without mentioning him would bring some of you out of the woodwork to find him if he was safe.”

“So… he’s not with you?”

“No,” said Carmen. “And not with any of you people either. I’ll tell you what, though, if you want to assume I’m lying, go for it. Keep that reticle on me. It should help Zack to make his headstart that much bigger. And thanks again for the info.”

Fletch grimaced and powered down her blaster. She walked past Carmen, into the alley.

“You’ll definitely be watched, Shift,” said Fletch as she passed into the shadows. “But next time, stay out of our way.”

Carmen grinned as Fletch walked away. She turned back to the sidewalk and picked up the pace, secure in the knowledge that wherever Zack was, he was probably safe.
***
Zack pushed aside another handful of the rope-like vines, wishing that they wouldn’t grow so close together. In the dark, he could visualize them as coarse ropes, but he knew that if he turned the light on they would look disturbingly like green muscle and sinew. The evolutionary convergence of that particular kind of biological structure was well documented, even in plants (or the plant-like life forms that filled similar niches on other worlds), but merely documenting it didn’t keep the recreation from seeming unnatural.

He carefully activated the lumisphere after emerging from that particular vegetative clump and examined his surroundings. He only had Murk’s word for it that he’d ever been in the Underjungles of Ravelar, but he had a feeling that this recreation of them likely paled in comparison to the real thing, no matter what his own feelings of deja vu were telling him. The natural ecosystem of a true cave system would almost certainly develop differently than the constraints of the (admittedly massive) subhull structures within Helix would allow, and Zack felt that he was probably fighting through less foliage than he would be encountering in the real thing. The lumisphere’s dim light seemed bright to Zack’s eyes, and provided a glimpse of a number of narrow “trails” betwen some of the larger trees, stalactites and pipes.

He shut off the lumisphere and continued his walk. He was following a wall, to the best of his abilities, hoping to find a maintenance hatch or forgotten doorway that Murk’s attention to detail had overlooked. The growths of vegetation didn’t always make it possible, but he was able to follow what he hoped was part of the peculiar curve of what might have been an undersection of Helix’s strange roadways.

The situation was made worse by Zack’s exhaustion. He hadn’t had a full evening’s sleep since Igneous warned him about the Desperate Measures Agency’s bounty on his head, and he hadn’t had time to look into the mystery of why they wanted him in the first place. His best window for escape from Veskid would be with Carmen’s upcoming race, but Helix alone was proving harder to leave than he ever expected the planet to be.

The underjungle was making everything even worse. He wasn’t sure how a place could be both humid and clammy, but the plant-filled chamber was pulling it off. The oppressive scent of vegetation in all the states between initial growth and final decay would have taken a toll at the best of times, but under the circumstances it was truly exhausting.

He found a strange, oddly straight depression in the wall. It confused him at first until he recognized it as the shape of a door. He quickly located a handle and began turning, but his heart sank. It was locked. He backed up, took a deep breath, and ran at the door, striking it with his shoulder, but only succeeded in rattling it. He clutched his shoulder, mentally adding it to the ever increasing list of aches and bruises he’d been accumulating over the past few hours.

“Gamma? Is that you?”

Zack’s head snapped in the direction of the voice. It sounded familiar, but out of place in the darkness of the jungle.

“Hello?”

“This way, human,” said the voice. “Hurry, there’s no time!”

“Igneous?” said Gamma. “Is that you, Igneous? How’d you find me?”

“Half of Helix knows you’re here,” she said. “It’s not safe. Quiet, there’s a hidden way out.”

Zack took a step into the dark, moving away from the door.

“I think I found another way out over here,” said Zack. “There’s a door, but it’s patched up tighter’n a rag doll with a starch problem. Strong as you are, though, you might be able to break it.”

“Too risky,” said Igneous. “I’m closer to this way out. You probably just found a maintenance closet.”

“Right,” said Zack, stepping through the underbrush, moving away from the wall.

“Closer,” said Igneous. “Almost here.”

“It’s hard to tell where you are,” said Zack. “How far until I get to you?”

“Any step now.”

“Your voice sounds the same,” said Zack, stepping closer. “No louder.”

“The acoustics are strange here.”

“They are,” said Zack, clutching the lumisphere. “I’m going to risk some light.”

“No need,” said Igneous.

Zack activated the lumisphere anyway and recoiled at the sight of a plant with a vice-like maw. The trunk of the plant lunged forward, but slower than Zack could recoil.

“This way,” came Igneous’ voice. Zack looked at the plant creature. The voice he was hearing seemed to be coming from somewhere beyond the plant.

“How do you do that?” asked Zack. “Some sort of psychotropic pollen?”

“There’s no time,” said Igneous’ voice. “Just a little closer.”

“I didn’t think Lusca would be so easy to avoid,” said Zack. “Plus you seem pretty immobile. I’m guessing you’re not the vine Murk warned me about.”

Zack clutched the lumisphere until the light deactivated. He turned to walk away.

“This way, human. The way out is this way. That way’s dangerous.”

“Sure it is,” said Zack.

His foot connected with a vine that hadn’t been there before. He gasped as the vine wrapped itself around his ankle and pulled. Zack tripped and hit the ground, suddenly being pulled through the underbrush, dragged toward the deadly Lusca Vine.