Tag Archives: Mandrake

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 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 156: Polite Awakenings

Zack smelled oatmeal that came with a healthy portion of cinnamon, milk, and honey, a reminder that every day could be sweet. He also smelled the black coffee, a blackness like the cold, unfeeling emptiness of space, or like the soot or mud that covered dumpsters in back alleys. Coffee that black would be bitter and real, a reminder that if you forced yourself to like something that tasted awful, the side benefits could help you to last until the next breakfast where there’d be more coffee.

His eyes fluttered open, and the strange thatching of mud and leaves reminded him that he wasn’t home. His ceiling didn’t look like that. He was struck with the realization that he never truly thought about what his ceiling looked like, but he knew it wasn’t what was above him.

“He’s up!” shouted a voice. Zack winced at the noise and looked across the room, gasping in shock at the gangly, inhuman being before him before he remembered Nectra. The shangmere stepped across the hut, stepping away from a Sthenite he didn’t recognie, and a human that he groggily recognized as Chala.

Nectra moved in front of him and he shook his head.

“Hey. I’m sorry, I… how’d I get here?”

“The Sthenites carried you,” said Nectra. “And The Phantom Matador.”

“She was very resourceful,” said Chala, stepping forward. “She encountered the guards who’d gone to facilitate your trial and the hunters who’d been sent to make sure you didn’t try running away. They recognized her from your description, and gave chase, and pursued her… right to you, where she quickly surrendered. They found me and brought me into the action so that I could translate.”

The orange-scaled Sthenite watched the conversation between the three aliens and slithered out. Zack followed its departure but turned back to Chala.

“Excellent,” said Zack. “So, the Matador is…?”

“In the slammer!” said Nectra. “The, uh… hokey?”

“Do you mean pokey?” asked Chala.

“Probably,” said Nectra. “He wasn’t up when we left.”

“That’s good,” said Zack. He leaned back into the cot and almost started relaxing before a sobering thought anchored his mind back in reality.

“How long was I out? Wait, why was I out?”

“The healer wasn’t sure,” said Chala. “But you’re sick. I wasn’t sure if we could break you out of it, but Nectra suggested familiar smells.”

“Humans like familiar smells,” Nectra said, nodding.

“Right,” said Chala. “So I tried making some coffee, and getting some instant oatmeal from my supplies cooking. I’ve not broken into that box in a while since I got used to the local food. Up for a bite?”

“Maybe,” said Zack. “But how long was I out?”

“About three hours,” said Nectra. “Don’t worry, though. We’ve still got plenty of time to stay ahead of Fletch.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Zack. “We’ll have to leave pretty quickly now.”

“You can’t,” said Chala, concerned. Zack tilted his head.

“Why?” he asked.

“You’ve got a trial to finish,” she said.

“We don’t have time for that,” said Nectra. “There’s an implacable assassin who means to see him dead, and she’ll be tracking him relentlessly. Zack’s only chance is to run while he can!”

“No, she’s right,” said Zack.

“What? Why?”

“I met someone in the caves when the trial first started,” said Zack. “But… the trial didn’t finish. I’ve gotta finish the trial, otherwise the Sthenites’ll kill me. I might be able to evade Fletch on this world, but I can’t evade the Sthenites. Not for as long, at least. And I’d rather have them as friends than as enemies.”

Nectra frowned and looked to the door. After a moment she sighed, walked to the door’s frame, and picked up her staff.

“I guess I’ll need this after all,” said Nectra.

“Why?” asked Zack.

“Don’t you remember?” she said. “Zack, if you’re going through with the trial, then we’re fighting to the death.”

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 150: The Unmasking

“Let’s go, then,” said Nectra, moving to the Phantom Matador’s legs and picking up his shoes.

“Not just yet,” said Zack. “One piece of business first. This guy’s got a bad habit of vanishing right when we think we’ve got him. I say it’s high time that I see what he looks like without his mask.”

“Ooh, yes,” said Nectra, dropping the feet. “Yes, you should do that. He looked friendly to me.”

“Wait, you saw him without a mask?”

“Yeah, back on the asteroids.”

“You were on some asteroids?”

“Oh, yes, following you. It was exciting.”

Zack held his chin, and thought. Asteroids were be a viable way to travel between worlds if you had a method for making sure they had an atmosphere and heat, and more than a little thought put into making sure that changes in direction didn’t fling a person off into space or kill them from the sudden increase in gravity. He thought he could remember a starry night sky on top of a mountain while he climbed a great chain or vine to another mountain top. The mountains were moving? Had he been on an asteroid? He shook his head.

“Great,” said Zack. “You can point him out in a line up. He says that I said I knew who he was… I’m not sure what happened that made me figure it out. Maybe I was bluffing. Either way, time to erase any doubt. Mister Matador, it’s time to figure out who you really are.”

Zack grabbed the mask with his left hand and the hat with his right hand. He took a deep breath and, in one fluid motion, pulled down the mask while pulling off the hat. The man had black hair, which had always been partly visible, and a thin, surprisingly kind face. Zack stared at the figure and sighed.

“Well then,” he said. “Now we can both pull him out of a line up.”

“You mean you don’t know who he is?” said Nectra.

“He looks familiar. Face like that, I’ve probably seen him on a movie poster somewhere.”

“Wait, no,” said Nectra. “No, you seemed so sure that you’d know who he was.”

“Well, the Matador said I’d be sure,” said Zack. “I wanted to believe him… and honestly, old Matty probably wanted to be caught and recognized on some level.”

“Why?”

“Beats me, but they say that about these flamboyant cases. They want attention, to be remembered. Usually, I mean.”

“You think he might be a special case?”

“No such thing as a case that isn’t.”

Nectra looked at the Phantom Matador’s face and shook her head.

“No, I know who he is.”

“You do?” said Zack. “Who?”

“He’s the guy we’re about to drag through miles of jungle so that we can turn him over to the Sthenites.”

Zack stared at the shangmerian assassin until she broke into a nervous smile with her too-wide mouth. Zack caved, shook his head, and smiled.

“You’ve watched too many of humanity’s bad movies, Nectra.”

“Was it good? Was it a good tough line?”

“Not bad for a first attempt,” said Zack, picking up the Matador’s arms. “You’re right, though. Time to get moving. I don’t know why he’s out like this, but we’d better take advantage of it before he wakes up. I think we go… that way, toward those three spongey tree things.”

“Great!” said Nectra, picking up the Matador’s legs. Together they carefully lifted the Matador and started to walk him out of the clearing. As they neared the tree line, Nectra watched the face of the Phantom Matador and cleared her throat.

“Zack, I’m sorry that you don’t know who this is.”

“Don’t worry about. He said I’d already claimed to know who he was, and that’s good enough for me, at least until I figure out why I can’t remember things anymore.”

“Good. So… is this the best way to move an unconscious human?”

“Honestly, it’s not come up for me very often,” said Zack. “We can switch it up after we take our first break.”

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 146: A Private Offer

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

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

“Don’t. They didn’t hear me.”

“Hmm?”

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

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

“That’s far enough,” said the voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you believe that’s wise?”

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

“Ah. I… have communicated this poorly.”

“Communicated what?”

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

“Hey now, you said now catches.”

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

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

“We are debating semantics.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Carmen-”

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

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

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

“Nice,” said Vince. “Lucky you.”

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 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.”

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.”