Tag Archives: noir

Episode 83: What Captains Are For

Captain Calen slammed Pilot Tan into Trell’s chair on the bridge. Tan glared up, but remained otherwise silent while Calen tapped instructions into the keyboard.

“Now, we’ll get to the bottom of this one way or the other,” she said. “Whether you’ve been trained well or not, you did successfully pilot a ship into Morcalan space, so you must know basic stellar navigation. Whether you remember anything or not, you did something, so we’re going to sit here until you work out just what it was. I caution you not to tarry long, for while the novelty of the exercise may stay my wrath longer than usual, we’re all in a hurry. However much time we have to act, know that you have less.”

“Threaten me all you like, I don’t have any clue what to do here. This isn’t even laid out like my panel.”

“Tell me how it differs.”

“It’s… okay, it’s mostly the same, but it’s missing a lot of controls.”

“You probably had more functions at your station, as your vessel was meant to be piloted by one person instead of two,” said Calen. “While I pity the Dyson Empire’s inability to properly delegate controls, I have no doubt that even you can work out what does and does not need to happen between the two terminals.”

Tan narrowed his eyes.

“Stop insulting me, okay?”

“When you prove your worth, I shall.”

“You know, if this is how everyone in your society acts, I’m glad the Emperor picked your system to conquer.”

Calen made a fist and pulled back her arm, but froze before carrying through. She shook her head and slowly unclenched her hand.

“You’ll pay for that later,” she said. “We need you now, though, and knocking you out of this chair isn’t a productive use of our time. For your sake if not mine, stop triggering my patriotism. Now… you sat in this chair. You heard the tone. What happened before you reached Morcala?”

Tan looked at the controls and shook his head. After a moment without comment he reached for the controls. He easily moved through the sequence of powering the ship’s engines for forward thrust, and quickly moved through the standard checklist for interstellar flight before pausing and slumping his shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I… don’t know what’s next. Something about navigation… inputting our final destination.”

“You mean your heading?”

“I… don’t think so,” said Tan. “I think our destination’s important.”

“You must keep it in mind, yes,” said Calen. “But it is more important to know your initial heading.”

Tan shrugged and tapped in a general heading that corresponded with the direction Calen’s scuttler was facing.

“That’s it, then,” he said. “Apart from launching and beginning the trip, of course.”

“But what does the signal mean, then?”

“Maybe nothing,” said Tan.

“Stop playing the fool,” said Calen. “What you’ve done so far is standard protocol. This might be a recreation of any launch sequence, not yours.”

“I can’t recreate the situation exactly,” said Tan. “There’s too many differences.”

“Then let’s ramp up the similarities.”

Calen accessed a communications terminal and opened a channel to Tan’s ship. A moment later it chirped when Ensign Trell responded to the hail.

“Captain?” she asked.

“I need a broadcast of the alarm you’re hearing,” said Calen.

“Is this really necessary?” asked Tan.

“Apparently,” said Calen.

Moments later, the strange, repetitive tone from Tan’s ship broadcast through the bridge. Tan shook his head, but his right hand moved to a numeric pad at the side of Trell’s keyboard, and input a string of numbers. Calen watched the numbers flash across the terminal’s display… like a location marker on a stellar cartograph, but too long… before the computer took the data and released the information that the input command meant nothing.

“Sorry,” said Tan. “It’s not jogging my memory at all.”

“Then what are those numbers?”

“Numbers?”

“The digits you just put onto the screen.”

Tan leaned forward and looked at the data, along with the ship’s reaction to it in the command line. He shrugged and turned back to Calen.

“It’s gibberish to me,” said Tan, turning to face Calen. “Like a bad imitation of a course destination.”

As he spoke, Calen saw a strange flash in his eye, the eye that she knew contained the cybernetic lens. His hand reached back to the number pad at the side of the terminal and input the same set of pseudo-coordinates. Calen smiled.

“And that’s what captains are for,” she said. “Tan, it appears that with good leadership, even you can produce results.”

Advertisements

Episode 64: Under The Table

Doctor Silas Rogers, better known across and beyond the Angelor Republic as The Soul Survivor, stood in the middle of a catwalk in the remains of the ruined station. His red, metallic body stood tall while he processed what data came in from the station’s machinery, advanced by even his standards but tamable through his patient application of research. The glass jar that sat where his head should have been seemed to stare into the dense fog of the Cypulchral Cloud, even though his personal sensors could barely push more than a few feet. The water in his jar bubbled thoughtfully, creating the only sound of activity in this long-dead place.

A Morcalan Scuttler cut through the mist. It approached the remnant of the station that used to be the hangar, perfectly landing at the spot designated by the coordinates that Doctor Rogers had included into all of the signals he’d been causing the station to generate. He had seen this vessel twice before, once while escaping to it and once while escaping from it, but this third time felt triumphant. He strode toward the landing spot as the Scuttler’s simple exit hatch lowered. Captain Calen stepped off first, followed by Ensign Trell and another figure he didn’t recognize… likely the unintended messenger who had been silently working for him for much of this day. Finally, the noble Captain Ortega stepped off after the others, smiling and even waving as he reached the bottom of the steps.

“We’ve come to lend assistance, as requested,” said Calen as Rogers neared. “What does the Soul Survivor need?”

“Passage away from here once my work is done,” said Rogers, selecting the resonant tenor voice that he preferred. “I’m almost disappointed. I’d expected to need to wait as long as a quarter of a century, but it appears I underestimated the ways in which I might benefit from Dyson’s attempted empire, brief though it may be.”

“Hey now,” said Pilot Tan.

“Your allegiance to this upstart so quickly after he conquered your region suggests subtle mental tampering, just like the one I’m using through your cybernetic lens.”

“You don’t even know which region I’m from.”

“With as short a time as Dyson has been around, it really doesn’t matter,” said Rogers. “What’s your name? I wasn’t able to get a good look at your records. The signal generated by this station had wreaked havoc with your ship before I was able to bring it to heel.”

“I’m Pilot Wilson Tan.”

“We’ll have much to discuss, Wilson,” said Rogers. “But first, I would speak to Captain Ortega.”

Ortega stepped forward, nodding.

“Clever use of the Dyson Empire’s technologies, Rogers,” said Ortega. “A visual output from a device designed to subvert certain neural preconceptions. Instant friendship and good will.”

“Yes, yes, I’m brilliant,” said Rogers. “Walk with me. You’ve information that I need.”

The servos and gears in Rogers whizzed and clanked as he turned to walk along the catwalk, heading toward an archway that separated this outer region of the ruined station from an interior section. Captain Ortega strode forward, easily catching up with Doctor Rogers as they moved.

“This is incredible,” said Ortega. “A portion of the nebula thick enough to contain heat and a breathable atmosphere.”

“I wouldn’t breathe it for more than twelve hours, if I were you,” said Rogers. “The cloud’s vapors contain many unpleasant materials. Illness and death would occur without treatment, or at least lengthy immersion in a proper environment.”

“So we’ll need to return to Calen’s ship before long.”

“We’ll be able to leave well before then,” said Rogers, stepping through an aperture and entering a long hallway. The hall was made from a red metal that Captain Ortega didn’t recognize. It featured walls that angled away, tapering to a point on either side and causing it to have, once the ceiling and floor were counted, six sides. Holes and patches in the walls and floor revealed unusual lengths of crystal that resembled pipes. Ortega had encountered any number of unusual alien technologies, but he didn’t recognize any of what he saw in the holes in the walls.

“What is all of this?”

“An engine of destruction,” said Doctor Rogers. “The Morcalan legends were true, to a degree. I’ve been searching for this space station for years under a number of different pretenses, a difficult task as it rarely spoke of itself to the ancient cultures it assaulted, seemingly at random. I believe this to have been the Terror Teknika of Thorrid Three, the Rupture Seed of the Crystalline Rifts, and the storied final doom of the Sepia Lord of the Vishnari.”

“The Sepia Lord didn’t exist, though, and the Crystalline Rifts are thought to have just been poetic descriptions of a standard nebula.”

“I believe that history is wrong on both of those counts,” said Rogers. “If the Sepia Lord didn’t exist, then someone very much like him did, and he grievously wounded this place. We are standing, Captain Ortega, in the flagship of Terranda Xol.”

“Xol?” said Ortega. “The… mythical birthplace of the Pyrhians?”

“Birthplace, Heaven, Hell, Shangri-La,” said Rogers. “Xol was their pre-life, after life, and most sought legendary location of the early space faring Pyrhian fleets. Like certain other cthonic entities, the name was used as both a location and a person. There was little difference between describing Terranda Xol and the location itself. This mobile fortress, though, was her way of traveling between the stars, and bringing her will to the non-Pyrhians, matching the early Pyrhian texts. ‘And Xol flew to the sky, to war with the far folk, to bring Xol to all.’”

“I’m not familiar with Pyrhian scriptures,” said Ortega.

“Not scripture,” said Rogers. “That passage is listed in their historical records.”

“Human historical records include stories about ancient England being home to giants,” said Ortega. “But I see what you mean. So why did you come here?”

“To gain an understanding of myself primarily,” said Doctor Rogers. “After the battle with the Sepia Lord, this facility was nearly destroyed. Terranda Xol needed to repair her flagship, using the raw souls and purified life of those who treasured life the most. This coffin of the Sepia Lord, this… cybernetic sepulcher swiftly fled to find those who lived more fully than any others.”

“And then what?” asked Ortega.

Doctor Rogers paused at a door at the end of the corridor. Rather than opening the door, the robotic frame twisted, miming the humanoid action of someone turning back to look at someone over their shoulder.

“What?” said Ortega.

“You don’t know what happened next?”

“No,” said Ortega.

“You really are a cretin,” said Rogers. “Obviously what happened next was the battle of Morcalan legend. Xol sought the souls of Morcalans to repair and refuel her fortress of terror, and the Morcalans stopped her. Barely.”

“Wait, the Morcalans are the ones who love life the most? Honestly?”

“Have you met them?” asked Rogers. “It’s hard to imagine a society more fully dedicated to acting wildly. I believe parts of this are lost in translation, though. ‘Loving life’ may not be as accurate for you, but something about the Morcalan principals of life resonated strongly with Terranda Xol, or were at least sufficient for her purposes.”

“Something doesn’t add up, though,” said Ortega. “Chronologically, ancient Pyrhian history and tales of things like the Sepia Lord are… well, old. They’ve been spacefarers much longer than humans, and Morcala wasn’t around during that time frame.”

“Don’t forget the incredible damage to this place,” said Rogers. “Even an idiot like you should be able to appreciate what moving at less than light speed means over such vast distances. Worse, imagine traveling at light speed without relativistic dampeners functioning. Morcala might not have existed when her quest began, but the early eras of their settlement would have already passed by the time Xol reached them and discovered a suitable race for her needs.”

“And you believe that she could truly find an interaction between her physical machinery and an immaterial concept like souls?”

“Of course I do,” said Rogers. “I’m an example of such technology, am I not?”

“I don’t know about that,” said Captain Ortega.

Doctor Rogers lowered his arm toward Ortega, and a glow rapidly filled his mechanical palm. Before Ortega could react a beam of energy shot forward, slamming into Ortega’s space-suit, knocking him back. Ortega’s suit seized and spasmed, no longer giving him the freedom of movement it normally provided as he hit the ground.

“I don’t know how you avoided the hypnotic lens flare, Ortega,” said Rogers. “But your acting needs work. A newly converted friend would at least humor me enough to agree that my soul lives. Or, at least, would be able to call me Soul Survivor instead of Rogers, as you did when you first left the ship. I would have your aid in this, Ortega, but if I must reap the life-harvesting soul-power of this dread place and the worlds beyond by myself, then so be it.”

Ortega glared from behind the helmet of his space suit as Doctor Rogers turned back to the door and opened it.

Much earlier, on another world…

Harold Zamona stepped up to the desk and nodded to the man behind it. The man was wearing an old Garamor military outfit. In another organization that might have been showing off, but in the Desperate Measures Agency it probably meant the person had an active career outside of his secretarial duties.

“Desperate times?” asked the man.

“Gettin’ there,” said Harold. “I was looking for some help with some work I’m doing. I’d like to get a list of your agents working on protection jobs.”

The secretary raised his eyebrow and glanced at the screen of the terminal at his desk. He looked back at Harold.

“You look familiar.”

“I get that a lot,” said Zamona. “So, how about it?”

“That kind of information is confidential, I’m afraid, and even if it wasn’t it’s harder to get that kind of information outside of the Veskid office. Best I could give you is information on agents on this planet, and outdated information on ones who’ve left here recently.”

“That should do,” said Zamona. “I believe the agent in question is either here, or recently left here.”

“That’s great. Doesn’t actually change the fact that it’s confidential.”

Zamona dropped a stack of bills onto the desk. One of the few reasons that Harold vastly preferred non-digital currency was for moments like this. A chip could contain so much more money, but with hard currency the recipient could actually see how much was being offered the moment the offer was made.

The secretary’s eyes widened a bit. He reached forward and flipped through the stack, rapidly approximating how much it contained. The man shook his head.

“Look, sir, I appreciate the offer, but I really mean that it’s confidential.”

Zamona dropped a second stack. The man behind the desk quickly pulled both stacks under the desk, rifled in a book for a second, and pulled out a sheet of paper which he handed to Harold.

“There you go,” he said.

“That was fast,” said Zamona, suspiciously.

“You’re not the first person to swing by this week. I printed some off in advance when I saw the trend. Paying customers deserve a speedy response.”

“I see,” said Zamona, taking the paper. “Thanks. You really helped me out here.”

“I hope so. Remember us the next time you need to take some Desperate Measures!”

“Right.” He shrugged his massive shoulders into a turn and walked back out the door.

The secretary opened up a tab on his computer, marked an officially accepted bribe, the service it was accepted for to ensure that he hadn’t given away too much information, and how much above the company’s cut of the bribe he’d accepted. Business continued to run smoothly, if you just understood how to regulate it.

Episode 58: Pressure in the Cloud

Pilot William Tan was thrown from the airlock onto the floor of Captain Calen’s ship. A helmet obscured his face, and his hands were fastened behind his back by a set of the Astroguard’s magnetic manacles. Calen lowered her Maelstrom Ray as Captain Ortega stepped in, just behind his prisoner.

“I wouldn’t expect you to treat war criminals so roughly, Ortega.”

“When in Rome,” said Ortega, removing his helmet. “Didn’t want to risk you thinking he was loose. Pushing him down meant he would be clear of any weaponry aimed his way.”

“You’ve a poor opinion of my senses if you think I can’t tell a prisoner from a boarder, Captain, and an even poorer opinion of my aim if you think you could protect him that way. Is our prisoner much use to us, or is he what passes for ballast in this cursed place?”

“He knows how to interpret the information I was able to pull off his computer,” said Ortega, removing a black cube from a compartment near his belt. “An active interpreter is more useful than a quick information grab, especially since the Cypulchral Cloud does things to sensors. He said he wasn’t able to shut his sensors off after The Signal took hold of his ship, so I’m hoping that they were thorough.”

Calen saw the black cube in Ortega’s hand and took a step back, eyeing it warily.

“What possessed you to bring something from that ship back here? I don’t want to risk my scuttler becoming infected with whatever spoils you’ve brought back. More than one tale of salvage ends horribly.”

“This is an Astroguard device, Captain,” said Ortega. “It was made with those kinds of situations in mind. All I need is a monitoring device, and I can use this to examine the data from his computer in isolation from your ship’s systems.”

Calen nodded, still looking over the cube from a distance.

“Permission granted,” she said. “You’ll do this under the supervision of Ensign Trell, though. Not to cast doubts on your techniques, Ortega, but I’ll trust a Morcalan engineer with field experience before I’ll trust the work of a team of technicians working from the safety of their own labs. Trell! Get in here!”

Moments later, the Ensign stepped out of the bridge.

“Trell, the good Captain’s got some information from the Dyson vessel. Help him to get to it so that there’s no chance of the data coming into contact with our systems. We’re playing with fire, today, and I’ll take no chances.”

“Understood, Captain.” Said Trell.

“Meanwhile, I’ve got a prisoner to interrogate,” said Calen. Before Ortega could react, her hand shot down, circled around the pilot’s neck, and slammed him into the wall.

“Wait!” said Ortega.

“No,” said Calen. “I’m sure you think you’ve gotten everything you can out of him, Ortega, and he may even believe he’s told you everything of value, but I insist on wringing our guest dry.”

“Can you at least wait until after Trell and I have more data from his computer?”

“What’s your name, boy?” Calen asked, ignoring Ortega. “I don’t like having strangers on my ship.”

A muffled response came from inside his helmet.

“Why’s he traveling without external speakers?” asked Calen.

“I turned them off during the flight over,” said Ortega. “Didn’t want him interrupting things before you’d had your say.”

“I thought he was being a little too polite for one of Dyson’s mongrels,” said Calen.

“Is that just a basic flight suit?” said Trell, looking at the prisoner’s outfit. “Those things barely have any insulation. Or heating. Captain Ortega, people can die from even brief exposure to space travel if this is all they’re wearing.”

“He’s fine,” said Ortega. “On the way over, my suit measured the temperature and pressure, and at this spot in the cloud it’s actually not bad. A little worse than the top of a standard planet’s highest mountains, maybe. He’s probably cold, but he wasn’t going to die.”

“That’s incredible,” said Trell, reaching over to the prisoner’s helmet and reactivating its external communications. “Pressure like that shouldn’t be possible in a gas cloud this size. Especially this close to the exterior. If only our sensors were working right now, I’m sure the data would be valuable.”

“-old, cold, cold, cold,” said William as the speaker on his helmet crackled to life. “Stop saying I’m fine, I’m cold, I’m cold.”

“We can hear you, Pilot Tan,” said Ortega.

“Good, then you know I need to warm up,” said the prisoner. “I went through blizzard training that was better than this.”

“You’ll warm up soon enough,” said Ortega. He looked up to see Calen nodding in surprised approval.

“What?” he asked.

“There’s a mean streak in you,” said Calen. “You hide it well. That’s a bit reassuring.”

“It can get the job done sometimes,” said Ortega. He walked closer and lowered his voice to a whisper.

“I don’t want you to sacrifice your technique here,” said Ortega. “I really don’t. But there’s something not right about this. Go easy on him during the interrogation.”

“Don’t go soft just when I’m starting to believe there’s hope for you, Ortega.”

“I’m serious,” he said. “There’s something off about him. Too calm. He’s practically a civilian, the way he acts. You might get something useful out of him, but I don’t think he’s worth getting blood on your hands.”

“Typical Astroguard morality,” she said. “You think he’s not dark enough to be worth getting blood on your hands. I may go easy on him for your sake, I may, but know that he’ll have to prove himself. My hands are primed for blood, Captain, and it’s up to him to see if he’s bright enough to be worth staying clean.”

Episode 47: The Helix Double-Cross

Zack stared into Vox Cul-Dar’s eyes and wondered if they’d always looked so alien or if something about this horrible moment made them seem worse.

“It’s been a sequence of close calls for me, Gamma,” said Vox. “I don’t like close calls. I’m sure it’ll look funny in retrospect, though… you leaving that diner when I’d asked for help tracking down the fugitive before I knew it was you, for instance.”

Zack pushed Chip off of him and got onto a knee, but Vox bared the razor sharp serrations on his arms.

“Don’t leave, Zack. You’re telling me you don’t find that funny?”

“It’s an absolute riot,” said Zack. “Look, you’ve got me… stop talkin’ me to death and just finish it now.”

Vox smirked.

“You must have a low opinion of me if you think it’s that easy,” he said. “We worked together at times, Zack. And you were a good coworker, even if you couldn’t be trusted with the more serious business at hand.”

“Then don’t do it,” said Zack. “Don’t kill me. It’s the worst system ever, and I’m convinced that me getting a death sentence like that was a mistake. I’ve never done anything that would hurt the DMA, and you know it. Imagine how much more you could make if you let me go, and then we both figured out who’s setting me up. Come on, Vox. For old times.”

“And now your opinion of me is too high, I think,” said Vox. “It’s just business, after all. You’d do the same.”

“You know that’s a lie,” said Zack.

Hobbar gasped and jumped to the side, staring down the hallway beyond the door that Vox had entered through. Vox blinked at Hobbar in surprise and quickly looked down the hallway, following Hobbar’s eyes. A large, Pyrhian rock man was hurtling through the air, rocketing straight for him, with a confident Carmen Shift guiding it from the hallway’s end. faster than any human could possibly avoid.

Vox inhaled as time, from his perspective, slowed down. He took a calm step back, entering a practiced motion that came from the years of physical and mental training that practitioners of his art learned from a young age, a living poetry that granted speed and balance in the most urgent and panicked of scenarios.

The rock man zipped through the space where he’d been standing and slammed into the wall, right next to a terrified Hobbar, and Vox’s head tracked the motion. He started turning his head back toward Carmen to say something snide about her aim, but paused when he saw Zack, on his feet and holding his second Purcelian striker pistol, aiming it straight at Vox’s head.

“Now, Zack…” Vox started.

Zack fired the pistol. The arc of magnetically charged energy hit Vox, and the alien twitched, spasmed, and fell to the ground. He began slowly moving almost immediately, but Zack retrieved his second pistol before anything else could happen. Carmen ran through the door and looked at the smoking alien on the floor.

“Is he dead?”

“Stunned,” said Zack. “Didn’t have time to change the settings if I’d wanted to.”

“Did you want to?” asked Hobbar.

“No time to get into that now,” he said. “Carmen… thanks for the save there. Do you know the best way out?”

“There’s a service entrance that goes through a kitchen by a security check point back this way,” she said. “I didn’t find it my first time out, but… someone left a lot of obvious security doors open on his way in that made it easier to find. I’m guessing it was your bug-eyed friend there.”

“Great,” said Zack. “Lead the way.”

“You can’t just leave,” said Chip. “What am I supposed to tell Murk? He’ll kill me.”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” said Zack. “Go and hide. He’s easy to avoid when there’s not a city-controlling hacker helping him.”

Zack and Carmen ran down the hallway. Vox twitched on the floor and, after a beat, Hobbar followed them.

“Where are you going?” asked Chip.

“Hey, I don’t have to explain anything to Murk, mister,” said Hobbar. “And I don’t wanna be here when the bug guy wakes up. Besta luck, though.”

Hobbar ran. And, moments later, so did Chip, though in a different direction, down another hallway.

Less than a minute later, Vox gave himself a final shake and sat up. His temples and legs ached, but he stared down the hallway, the way he’d entered. And, he reasoned, the way that Zack had left.

“Not this time,” he said, rising to his feet and sprinting toward the service entrance.

***

Carmen and Zack ran through the kitchen that was mercifully empty thanks to the hour, though they periodically passed a lot of unconscious, or in some cases possibly dead, members of Murk’s security staff. Zack shuddered as they opened a door at the far end of the kitchen and saw a small security checkpoint that was noticeably vacant.

“Vox was sloppy getting in here,” said Zack. “Effective, but… sloppy.”

“No complaints here,” said Carmen. “Made my job easier. As soon as I saw that ghost thing talking to you in a cell, I knew I had to come back in here.”

“Well, that makes me feel like an idiot,” said Zack. “My rescue attempt didn’t exactly speed things up. Plus now Murk’s up and after me.”

“Actually, I heard a communicator activate on a guard just before I got to you,” she said. “Murk told everyone to stand down for now, and that they’d resume normal duties tomorrow. He sounded worried.”

“Good ol’ Igneous,” Zack said, running between the desks and opening the door that led outside. A narrow flight of stairs later, and Zack was in an alley, with the street visible a short distance away.

Hobbar speedily caught up with them at the top of the staircase, panting.

“You again,” said Carmen, clenching her fists.

“Look, lady, I’m just tryin’ to get outta there, same as you,” he said. “Think I’ll move to Veskid.  Helix probably won’t be healthy for me for right now.”

“Want a lift?” asked Zack, briskly moving toward the street as the other two kept pace.

“Just to my place,” said Hobbar, pulling the van’s keys out of his vest pocket. “I’ve got a few things to pick up.”

Reaching the street, Zack pointed out the van, but Hobbar looked in another direction, spotting something else.

“Where are you going?” asked Zack. “I’m in a hurry! Vox will be after us any minute now.”

“I know!” he shouted. “Just get to the van! I’ll be there quickly.”

Zack winced at the delay, but Carmen pulled him in the direction of Igneous’ vehicle. Zack opened the back doors and stepped in, but Carmen paused.

“Why is there a hot tub in the van?”

“It’s more like a cold tub, actually,” he said. He looked in the tub and saw the faint outline of Igneous beneath the piles and piles of ice.

“And it’s got Igneous in it.”

“Igneous?” asked Carmen.

“Friend from work,” said Zack. “Trustable, though.”

Carmen nodded. Hobbar returned, grinning.

“What were you doing?” asked Zack, shutting the van’s back door after Hobbar stepped in.

“Returning something,” he said. “I’ll tell you soon.”

Hobbar hopped into the driver’s seat of the van, activated it, and sped away just as Vox emerged from the alley. He saw the van leave, noted the driver, and scowled.

He sprinted down the street, entering his flying car quickly. He activated it as Rendelac took notice of him, and was in the air before the computer could speak.

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” it said.

“Not now, Rendelac!” Vox shouted. “Zack Gamma is getting away in that van. We can catch him, though… he has a head start, but this car can fly! There’s no evading us now.”

“Greater wisdom may be yours if-”

“Quiet!” said Vox.

“Your car has been-”

Vox muted Rendelac’s speaker systems and continued driving through the air, pushing away the guilt he felt at silencing his digital guide. He could just see the taillights of the van ahead of him, and the spirals of the roads would give him the edge.

A red warning light flashed on his status panel as his car began slowing, seemingly of its own volition.

“What?” asked Vox. “What’s happening…”

Rendelac’s eye shifted in color, indicating that the computer had something to say if Vox cared to hear it. Vox reactivated the speaker system.

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “The boy who tampered with your vehicle after misleading you earlier returned to the car.”

“Did he steal something else?”

“No,” said Rendelac. “In fact, he returned the identification node that he stole.”

“That shouldn’t alter anything about how the car drives,” said Vox.

Red flashing lights appeared in the sky behind Vox. A message on the vehicle’s status screen appeared, indicating that his vehicle had been remotely apprehended by Helix law enforcement on suspicion of using a stolen identification node by order of an Officer Tacara.

“We registered it as stolen,” said Rendelac. “We have committed no crime, but the child may have caused us a significant delay in our pursuit as flagged identification nodes are of great interest to the law enforcement agencies across Veskid.”

Vox’s eye twitched as he watched the lights of the van disappear in the darkness ahead. With a gentle bump, his car landed on a remotely selected section of pavement while the vehicle behind him landed as well. As Vox saw the officer stepping out of the car in his rear view mirror, he gripped the controls of his own vehicle.

Zack might, in fact, prove difficult to apprehend after all.

To Be Continued…

Episode 44: Rock In A Hard Place

“Good to see you, Murk,” said Igneous, maintaining her pin on the terrified Jen. “How’ve you been since Ravelar?”

“Marvelous,” said Murk. “Today’s quite the reunion. I take it you’re here to help Gamma as you did back then?”

“He’s not with the Agency anymore,” said Igneous. “There’s a nice bounty on his head. And he’s here in your facility. If I suspected it before, I’d say the wind prophet confirmed it.”

Igneous carefully shifted her weight and Jen gasped. It was a technique that came from a lot of practice, and too much time associating with humans. The right amount of weight on the right part of the abdomen, and a human couldn’t breathe enough to talk most of the time. The woman with the cabbie hat was an unfortunate witness. Even if Jen managed to catch her breath enough to speak, the threat would be clear; much more pressure would cause permanent damage, if not a painful death.

“That mad child is always informative when he can be coaxed to talking.”

“Child?” asked igneous. “He looked old for one of his sort. Aren’t most of the prophets older than you?”

“I grew up,” said Murk. “The prophets are useful, but some people cling to their current stage of life so much longer than they should… ignoring the bright future they have ahead of themselves.”

Igneous kept a blank expression at that comment, but the glow from within the cracks in her hide brightened. Murk’s face twisted into a grin, though his two rock soldiers looked uncofortable.

“What’s Gamma worth to you?” asked Igneous. “The bounty I’m after is a large one. Very large.”

“I’m not planning on paying the DMA’s prices to you for the fun of killing off Zack, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Murk. “Even for only a quarter of those prices, imagine if any other DMA agents were nearby. It’d set a horrible precedent if they got here after you.”

Igneous’ mind raced. She knew this conversation wouldn’t last much longer before either Zack did something stupid like running around the corner, or before Murk’s patience wore out. The witness she was pinning would complicate issues as well.

“Consider this, then,” said Igneous. “I was with Gamma already, trying to coax him out of Helix and back to Veskid City, humoring his plans without revealing mine. If other bounty hunters are on their way, you may have a lot of trouble in the near future if Zack is still here. Let me take him off your hands, and you’ll avoid that trouble.”

“How generous of you, offering to receive a giant bounty payment like that,” said Murk. “It would leave me without my chance for vengeance, though. If I smother him myself, the problem of bounty hunters still goes away.”

“Why does vengeance matter that much to you?” asked Igneous. “Gamma says he doesn’t remember you at all. And I can attest to the fact that his memory seems… faulty.”

“Even if that’s the case, I’m excited to see him dead,” said Murk. “I don’t care if he can’t remember how everything unfolded on Ravelar. Besides, I’m not convinced that he’s not lying. He’d say or do anything to survive, one of the more pitiable traits in humans.”

Igneous slowly picked herself up from the ground, letting Jen breathe. She hoped that everything she’d said matched closely enough to what Jen had seen.

“So, you won’t match the DMA’s bounty for Zack, and you won’t let me take him to help you avoid a future problem. We’re at an impasse.”

“Not for long,” said Murk. He gestured to the two rock men. “You two, don’t let her interfere. The rest of you, to the cells.”

Episode 43: Converging

Zack jumped out of the cell and began storming down the hallway toward the stairs, moving passed the stunned Igneous and Hobbar. Chip grinned as Zack neared.

“Not the racer? Sorry about th-”

Zack punched Chip and grabbed the hacker’s shirt. It didn’t wipe the smile away, but Zack could see the change in Chip’s eyes. Chip knew he’d gone one comment too far.

“Where is she?”

“I honestly don’t know,” he said. “I’d been hoping that I could talk you into the Pyrhian prophet’s cell, but all the others are genuinely unlocked. Maybe Murk released her again already, since I didn’t have time to give context to the instructions to have her kidnapped.”

“Where else might they try to hold her?”

“I really don’t know,” said Chip.

Zack wasn’t sure how far he could trust his instincts on the hacker, but he felt that Chip was being honest enough. He let go of Chip’s shirt.

“I don’t want a word from you until we’re out of here, unless it’s to talk down more guards,” said Zack. “If I get out of Helix in one piece, I might not tell Murk how helpful you’ve been. If you do anything else to mess with me, and I mean anything, you won’t make it back to that dusty penthouse of yours.”

Rapid footsteps echoed from the top of the stairs. Chip looked from Zack’s eyes to the staircase and back. Zack either didn’t notice the noise or didn’t care.

“Are we clear?” asked Zack.

“Very,” said Chip.

Zack pushed the hacker in the direction of the steps.

“Now get us out of here.”

“Should we do anything about the… prisoner in there?” asked Hobbar. “He’s… he doesn’t look well.”

Hobbar looked at the Pyrhian in the cell. He was curled into a tense crouch on the cell’s floor.

“I don’t think he’s breathing,” said Hobbar.

“He doesn’t need to breathe,” said Igneous.

Two humans raced into the hall, a man in a suit and a woman in a soft cap and more casual garb. The two paused when they saw the people already in the hall.

“Chip,” said the woman.

“Jen,” said Chip. “Good to see you.”

Rillem looked passed the group and saw the unlocked door. He raced toward the door, prompting Zack to tense, but Chip held up a hand. The man looked into the cell and groaned.

“He got out.”

“What?” said Hobbar. The Crinlian looked passed the man back into the cell and saw that the Pyrhian air man was, in fact, missing.

“How did he get out?” asked Zack.

“He’d only need a crack. Tell me that you didn’t open the door because you thought the racer was going to be here? I hate to say it, Chip, but we’ve lost Carmen Shift. She got out.”

Chip looked at Zack carefully. Zack’s mind raced.

“That’s it exactly,” said Zack. “It was the only locked cell, so we… looked there.”

“Didn’t you install the special lock, Chip?” asked Rillem. “You should’ve known what cell this was.”

“Who are you?” asked Jen, looking at Zack.

“Me?”

“I know you,” said Jen, taking a step back toward the stairs. A look of realization crossed her face before she turned to race up the stairs. Zack ran after her. Igneous was faster.

Igneous pushed past Zack and made it to the staircase as Jen ran up. Igneous couldn’t catch up on the stairs, designed for smaller human feet as they were. Jen ran through the door to the hall, gaining more ground as Igneous slowed to squeeze through the door frame. Jen rounded the corner before the elevators just as Igneous fully emerged into the hallway.

Igneous ran through the open space, moving much faster now and gaining ground. She turned the corner, leaving an indentation in the floor as her stony feet propelled her in a different direction, and launched toward Jen as she neared the elevators.

Igneous tackled the human just before reaching the elevator controls, and pinned her to the floor.

Both of the elevators chimed, and the doors slid apart. One elevator contained two Pyrhian rock men. The other held four humans and Murk. The Pyrhian water man flowed out of the elevator door, and observed Igneous and Jen carefully.

“Hello, Igneous,” said Murk. “it’s been a while.”

Episode 41: Hacker’s Recollection

Carmen had half-expected to hear klaxon alarms and the thundering footsteps of guards around every corner, but the facility apparently lacked the large staff or intricate security systems that media had led her to expect. At one point, two frantic looking humans in suits ran down a hallway while she hid behind a disused aquarium in an open supply room, but hadn’t otherwise seen any signs of people looking for her.

She wasn’t sure what she’d missed by choosing not to follow the Phantom Matador’s directions, but the path she’d taken had been a long one through a mostly linear set of halls. She’d considered hiding in each and every room she came to to make sure that the coast was clear every few feet, but dismissed the idea as ridiculous and a waste of time. Just when she was beginning to feel that she was going in a circle, she turned a corner and saw two elevators set into the wall. She ran to them and pushed the Up button before beginning the tiresome process of waiting. Finally she heard the elevator chime and saw its doors glide open.

A rapid set of footfalls echoed from around the corner and she winced, worried that the sound of the elevator had attracted attention. She jumped into the elevator and pushed the button to close the door.

Moments later, a second chime was heard in the hallway as the second elevator’s doors opened. Zack, Chip and Hobbar quickly stepped out of the tiny elevator, giving Igneous the space needed to slowly extract herself from the human-sized doors. Two people in suits ran around the corner and stared in surprise at the four of them.

“Hey!” shouted one of the two men. Zack tensed and reached for his pistol.

“They’re with me!” shouted Chip, pushing his way ahead of Zack.

The two men paused, unsure.

“Who are you?” asked one.

“I’m Chip,” he said. “Chip Creep.”

The two stared.

“I work with Murk. I’m an information specialist. These three are with me.”

“I think I’ve heard him mention a Chip before,” said one.

“If you have questions, just go and check the Underjungle Manifest. I’m it’s curator.”

“Oh! The Ravelar thing,” said the second. “Yeah, I know this guy. He does work for us.”

“With you,” said Chip. “Not for you.”

“Sure,” the second man. “Sorry, we heard the elevator and thought-”

“Never mind,” said Chip. “No problem. Carry on.”

Chip turned and walked toward the near end of the hall. Hobbar and Igneous quickly did likewise, followed by Zack. They soon turned the corner and Zack breathed a sigh of relief.

“A little slow on the uptake there,” said Chip.

“Sorry,” said Zack. “Felt like things were going to go south.”

“Yeah, and I would’ve either died in the crossfire, or you would’ve attracted so much attention that we’d have a firefight.”

“Thanks for not trying to pull a fast one there.”

“It wouldn’t have been practical,” said Chip, reaching a door that opened onto a flight of stairs. “Though if they actually check the Underjungle Manifest, they’ll think something’s up since there isn’t a Manifest for that project. Not one I know about. I think she’ll be down here.”

The three shorter figures entered first, allowing Igneous the chance to squeeze through the narrow door. She was glad to see that the passage quickly expanded on its way down.

“I hate it down here,” said Hobbar. “The deeper you go in a building, the fewer exits you’ll get. And I’ve been looking. There aren’t any. The farther we go here, the harder it’ll be to get out if something goes wrong.”

“What a coincidence that that’s where the cells were put,” said Chip, leading the way down. “They really lucked out on that. Truly, Murk’s money was well spent on whatever architect worked that out.”

“Look, don’t start with me,” said Hobbar. “I get jittery if there’s not a good way out.”

“We won’t have to be here long,” said Igneous. “Just long enough to get the racer since Zack’s already got everything else he needs.”

The staircase opened into a long hallway. Reinforced doors ran along one side, with a control panel for each door opposite them. Zack’s eyes shot down the hall until he saw the control panel with a different readout.

“That one,” he said. “She’s there.”

“How do you know?” asked Hobbar.

“Green readouts on the others that say they’re unlocked,” said Zack, running down the hall. “It’s the only one with a red screen. It’s locked.”

The others followed as Zack ran to the control panel. He looked at it, perplexed.

“I’ve never seen something like this before,” he said. “It’s not a standard model. Not like the others.”

“It’s custom,” said Chip. “Designed to dampen psychic capabilities as well as keep the door locked.”

“You’re sure?” asked Zack.

“Like I said, I’ve been down here exactly once,” said Chip. “I can get it open without a password.”

Zack stepped back and allowed Chip to begin working at the terminal. Chip smiled to himself. He certainly remembered adding the custom design to this particular terminal. He also remembered that Carmen wasn’t in this cell. He couldn’t wait for Zack to meet the person who was.

Episode 39: The Vendril Safe

Chip entered Murk’s office, keeping his eye out for anything dangerous or useful. The room was sparsely furnished but pleasantly decorated. The wood paneling of the walls was gently lit by a small glowing dome on the ceiling, while two tables on opposite sides of the room held lamps that enhanced the dim effect to the point that it was almost bearable. A few paintings on the walls showed images of ocean life and vast wetlands on alien worlds, with a picture of a nebula on the wall behind the desk.

Zack pushed his way in after, keeping his eyes on Chip. Hobbar and Igneous followed, with Igneous carefully locking the door behind her. Zack walked to the desk and began a practiced sweep of the area.

“You’d think someone as successful as Murk could afford a few chairs,” said Hobbar.

“Pyrhians at his stage of life don’t really need to sit,” said Igneous. “They can fashion themselves into whatever form is easiest. Lying down, sitting, and standing amount to about the same effort for water people.”

“And he likes other people to be uncomfortable,” said Chip. “If you’re meeting him in his office, he wants you standing.”

“Nothing,” said Zack. “There’s nothing here. Nothing I can use, anyway. The entire desk is… it’s police-raid safe. Clean as a weatherman’s car. Only notes on legitimate business, personal finance… I pegged Murk as sloppier than this.”

“Oh, he’s sloppy,” said Chip. “He’s just careful about it. Check behind Vendril Eight Four Eight.”

“Behind what?” asked Hobbar.

“The picture,” said Igneous. “One of the first regions of space that Pyrhians colonized.”

Zack grabbed the painting and moved his hands across its frame until he found a latch. He pulled it, and the painting swung out on hinges like a door revealing a safe with a small control panel and four spaces for numbers.

“A secret safe,” he said.

“Murk was pretty open about it, actually,” said Chip. “I think he felt like he’d finally made it when he could afford that thing. He showed it to me the first time I met with him here. I didn’t even have anything he needed to put there. I’ve heard other people say that he shows it off pretty regularly. And the good news is that Murk is mostly transparent. The combination is Three Five Five Eight.”

Zack reached out to enter the code.

“Wait,” said Hobbar. “That’s an Eversteel safe. Eversteel safes can have false codes installed that can activate alarms.”

Zack glared at Chip, who smiled genially.

“They’ll also lock people out for an hour if there are too many failed attempts to open the safe too quickly. …which can also, at the owner’s option, set off alarms.”

“So brute forcing my way through the possible combinations isn’t an option,” said Zack.

“You really think we’d have that kind of time?” asked Igneous.

“Probably not,” said Zack. “Even with only three numbers it could take over an hour.”

Zack carefully looked over the control panel. He didn’t have the tools needed to check for fingerprints properly, but Pyrhians didn’t have fingerprints. Murk had a lot of pseudo-water that could be formed into fingers if needed, and while he might not need fingers to pick things up he still used them for interacting with human-made controls. Three of the buttons definitely had wear on them, as if they’d been polished from extra use.

“I think I can tell which buttons he’s used the most,” said Zack.

“Nice job,” said Chip. “But do you really think you can know what order they’re in?”

“Igneous, does the Pyrhian alphabet have an equivalent to the letter V?” asked Zack. “Is it the third letter by any chance?”

“Yes,” said Igneous. “To both.”

Zack entered a three as the first number, followed by an eight, a four, and another eight. Igneous groaned and Hobbar looked confused.

“What?” said Hobbar.

“Ordinarily I wouldn’t try something so obvious, but it fits the used numbers. Vendril Eight Four Eight. Unless you have any better ideas?”

“It’s a step up from using birthdays, at least,” said Igneous.

Zack grabbed the safe’s handle and pulled. The lights around the numbers turned a reassuring shade of green, and a moment later the safe’s door swung open. He breathed a sigh of relief.

“Not as confident as you seem?” asked Chip.

“I was worried that code for access would’ve been set to also be a code that sets off an alarm,” said Zack.

“I don’t think the safes are made to let users do that,” said Hobbar.

“That’s a mistake, then,” said Zack as he peered into the safe. “If I buy a safe, I always want to know when someone opens it, even if it’s me.”

The safe contained a number of files and papers near the front, and Zack could even see some bricks of paper money near the back. A box on top of a pile of folders caught his attention, and he quickly opened it. He smiled, and removed the box from the safe. He set it on the table and removed his Identification Card and his Purcellian Striker Pistols from within.

“One down,” he said. “Three to go.”

Episode 38: Plan Of Attack

Chip Creep walked out of the shadows of the train tunnel. The guard on duty continued playing some sort of game on his handheld computer, not noticing the hacker’s approach at first. When Chip began an awkward attempt to rise out of the tunnel and onto the platform proper, he almost dropped the phone in surprise but held onto it long enough to put it away and help Chip up.

“Chip? What are you doing?”

“Walking. Thanks. I need to see Murk.”

“Where’s the train? Don’t you usually use a little train? The ‘Creeper Car’ or something?”

“Creep Car. I’m having some train trouble. Listen, I’ve got to talk to Murk, Zack Gamma’s escaped.”

“Escaped? How?”

“Help from the outside. We don’t have long, I really need to speak to Murk about this.”

“Right,” said the guard. He returned to the door and entered a short code on the door’s keypad. The door clicked, and he opened it. He had to quickly sidestep Chip as the hacker tried to move into the door.

“Hey!” said the guard. “You know I’ve gotta clear you first.”

“We don’t have time to wait for that,” said Chip.

A raucous thundering of footsteps came from the other tunnel. The guard stopped and turned to the train tracks, just in time to see a giant Pyrhian rock woman leaping at him, with eyes like brilliant embers. Chip and the guard both screamed as Igneous grabbed the guard and slammed him to the ground. Chip looked away, expecting a sickening sight, but moments later her gravelly voice rumbled to life without the unpleasant noises that he’d anticipated.

“All clear,” she said. Zack entered from Chip’s side of the tunnel, lowering the pistol he’d had trained on Chip during the execution of the plan, the very pistol that he’d stolen from Chip’s apartment. Hobbar entered from Igneous’ side of the tunnel, keeping his sharp eyes on everything surrounding them. Hobbar looked at the guard and breathed a sigh of relief that the guard was breathing, though he doubted the scorch marks on the suit would come out any time soon now that Igneous’ scalding hands had left their mark.

“Nice work, Chip,” said Zack. “He totally bought it and gave Igneous the opening she needed.”

“It wasn’t hard to mess up,” said Chip. “If the plan went wrong, he would’ve let me in and I would’ve been safe from you and I could’ve just told Murk what I know. No matter how this plays out, I’ll help somebody.”

“Right,” said Zack.

“Too bad it’s looking like it’ll be you,” said Chip.

“Thanks,” said Zack.

“Why only one guard?” asked Hobbar. “This is an obvious security problem.”

“I’m the only one in Helix with access to these tunnels,” said Chip. “If an assassin gets in this way, it’s because I helped. And, hey, look how it’s playing out.”

“Your honesty’s refreshing,” said Igneous. “What’ll we be dealing with once we get inside?”

“Murk’s office is near this door. I’ve got no idea what kind of schedule he keeps, but if he’s around there should be guards nearby. I’ve heard he’s no pushover in a fight by himself, though.”

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” said Igneous.

“You said that the holding cells are deeper down,” said Zack. “You sure that they’ll only have light security?”

“No,” said Chip. “I’ve seen them once, and didn’t really want to be there. I felt closed in. Seemed light at the time, only one guard. I’ve got no idea how it’ll look now, though, it’s been a couple years.”

“We’ll have to play that part by ear, then,” said Zack. “Getting Carmen out’s the priority, but it sounds like I’ll have a chance to grab my gear before then, assuming Murk’s still got it in his office. The office is also where we’ll have the best shot at finding the kind of evidence that Murk doesn’t want to be publicized, and that might give us some breathing room if we can get out alive with it. Let’s be quick and quiet about this. No surprises, got it everyone?”

He looked pointedly at Chip.

“Got it,” said Chip.

“Right,” said Hobbar.

“Good,” said Igneous. “The longer we can go without them suspecting anything, the easier this’ll be. Which means there’s probably a dozen or so people just beyond the door. Let’s see how our luck holds out.”

Zack pushed the door open, finishing the job that the guard stopped when Chip tried to slip in. The wood paneling and comfortable lighting beyond revealed a hallway bereft of armed guards.

“So far so good, Igneous,” he said. “Let’s go.”

***

“You’re sure this is where he was last sighted?” asked Vox Cul-Dar.

“The cameras tagged him as an Unknown Figure when he was standing upon the opposite building, looking in the direction of this one,” said Rendelac. “The Phantom Matador was in this location, and observing this building carefully. Barring some editing of the footage.”

Vox nodded. He’d parked his car a short distance from the somber building on Alpha Street, hopefully far enough that he wouldn’t attract attention from either of the large humans who stood on either side of the door. They were trying to look like they were casually loitering, but Vox could tell a guard at a post when he saw one.

“And you did suggest that there was some delay in the file, as if it was being sent elsewhere,” said Vox. “Barring the possibility of code designed to randomly place images of the Phantom Matador in footage, would you say that the time of the delay was more in keeping of observation than editing?”

“Affirmative,” said Rendelac.

“A building with two burly gentlemen who’ve donned clothing on the cheap side of expensive. A building that, if memory serves, is one of the most likely strongholds of Murk.”

“Heed well my words, Vox-Cul Dar,” said Rendelac. “I’ve finished a facial recognition algorithm on those two. They both have criminal records, and one of them does in fact have a known history of dealings with the criminal known as Murk. This building may be more dangerous than we expected when we first decided that it would be worth our time to track the Phantom Matador.”

“You are correct,” said Vox. “Caution is advised. Still, my profession requires bold steps. I do believe that Murk has a few prices on his head, and I’m sure that those in his organization are wanted as well. Just imagine if I could capture the Phantom Matador, while establishing a link between him and Murk’s organization.”

“Heed well my words,” said Rendelac. “Assuming a link there would be speculation. Especially when the Phantom Matador was observing the building rather than entering it.”

“You’re correct, of course,” said Vox. “Regardless, this building is my next stop. Wish me luck, Rendelac. It’s time to find my way inside.”

Episode 37: Search Pattern

Captain Calen turned to tell Trell to begin finding the coordinates, but the Ensign was already working quickly on loading the transmission. Calen turned back to the loudspeaker and addressed the voice again as her Scuttler fully drifted into the Cypulchral Cloud, obscuring the windows with a purple haze.

“What do you mean? What’s the signal, and how does it find us?”

“Keeping transmissions open gives it a door to you!” said the voice on the other end of the line. “I’ve note had long to try to figure it out, but I’d swear that it actively targets the most sensitive parts of computers. It transmits itself, and it comes so fast and frequently that it can overwhelm a system. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“How did it attack your systems?” asked Calen. “What happened first?”

No voice responded.

“Hello?” said Calen.

“I cut the transmission,” said Trell. “I’m sorry, Captain. I had the coordinates.”

Calen clenched her fist for a moment before shaking her head.

“No need to apologize,” said Calen. “It was… tactically sound.”

“I’d say this confirms the old stories about the Cypulchral Cloud uploading data onto ship computers,” said Captain Ortega. “Sounds safe enough now that we know what we’re looking for, though. If we just keep the signals down…”

“Don’t try to make this out to be easier than it is,” said Calen. “Just because we can fill in some missing portions on the map doesn’t mean there won’t still be dragons here. And don’t forget that we’ve still got the Soul Survivor to find. If you have any good suggestions for searching a dust cloud the size of a small moon for a robot the size of a person without using any sensors, I expect to hear them as soon as we rescue the poor soul lost in this infernal haze.”

“I’ve got a few thoughts on that matter,” said Ortega. “The Astroguard has some search patterns for regions like this. It won’t be easy, but they’re meant for times that the sensors have been disabled instead of times that we’re just choosing not to use them. We should have a bit of an advantage there.”

Calen nodded and walked to her chair at the center of the bridge.

“Glad to hear the Astroguard is good for something,” she said. “Trell, input those coordinates. I won’t be much good refining your directions without sensors, so feel free to take initiative on course corrections as needed. Ortega, make yourself useful and go stand by a window, see if you can get a visual on anything.”

Ortega nodded and approached one of the smaller windows. The view was significantly less useful than the viewscreen would have been in most other situations, but it gave him enough of a forward view that he could at least make sure that they wouldn’t be crashing into anything. As long as it didn’t come from the starboard side of the ship.

He was glad that Captain Calen hadn’t asked him for more details about the Astroguard’s nebula-searching patterns, as they weren’t any more advanced than most other organizations that had similar search and rescue operations. Someone familiar with even rudimentary military protocol… someone like Doctor Silas Rogers… would know how the patterns unfolded and could come up with a good plan for avoiding detection if they didn’t want to be found.

Ultimately, his plan for finding Rogers was based more on personal familiarity with his quarry. If Doctor Rogers had a specific plan for the Cypulchral Cloud that went beyond escape and evasion, it meant one of two things. Either Rogers would soon contact the nearest vessels to gloat and add to his personal legend once the plan was finished, or the plan would activate in some spectacularly visible way.

Unfortunately, tracking Rogers in that fashion meant that it would require waiting until he was done or nearly done with the scheme. Rogers was predictable, but capable. He didn’t think that Captain Calen would appreciate a plan that involved sitting and waiting… especially not in a place that Morcalans seemed to fear… but he knew that if he could count on anyone to help him act quickly once Rogers revealed himself, Calen and Trell would be not only willing but enthusiastic to leap into action.

Or, he might get incredibly lucky and locate Doctor Rogers using the search patterns. Luck would help him win the day one way or another. Or a lack of luck would help Rogers to win it.

“We’re approaching the coordinates, Captain,” said Trell. “He’s not very deep into the Cloud. Assuming that his calculations were right, we should be nearing him soon.”

“Good to hear,” said Trell. “We may all be claimed by the Cloud in the end, but we’ll make sure that whoever’s lost out here won’t die alone.”

Ortega kept looking through the window, peering ahead. He couldn’t make out much at all. He shook his head and started to turn from the window but glanced down.

“Wait, there’s something,” he said. “We might be here already. Something’s…. under us. Not sure how far.”

“Full stop, Trell,” said Calen. “Captain Ortega, you’re dressed for a spacewalk with that fancy Astroguard flight armor of yours. Head to the airlock and try to get a better visual.”

“Sure thing, Captain,” he said, erring for a casual acknowledgement since he wasn’t familiar with the Morcalan military policies for addressing fellow Captains on their own ship. Calen didn’t react, so he decided that it would do for now.

He walked toward Airlock Two, the same airlock that he and Doctor Rogers had used to first enter the ship. He stepped inside and let the door close, activating his suit’s helmet. The familiar visor and protective plating slid into place around his head as the air began to cycle. He double checked that the sensors in his space suit were off just in case his own suit would be susceptible to whatever “the signal” was, and prepared to step directly into the cloud.

The airlock’s outer door opened. He saw a strange, ambient light illuminating the purple mist of the Cypulchral Cloud, making him wonder if elements of the cloud might be dangerously radioactive deeper in. He stepped through the airlock’s threshhold and started to fly.

He zipped down and slowed when the object became clearer. It wasn’t a full ship. Instead, it was a long piece of metal, almost half as long as Calen’s scuttler. A transparent tube ran along the center of the metal, with a coiling filament faintly glowing within. Ortega turned back to the scuttler, prepared to report that it wasn’t more than garbage, either a remnant of the fabled superweapon or of some other ship that became lost inside the cloud after the war.

Before reaching the scuttler, he realized that the ship’s stationary position at full stop made it a reliable point of reference. Spacial drift would occur, of course, but for short periods of time he should be able to perform short range scouting.

Ortega changed direction, and launched himself forward along the ship’s hull. He resisted the urge to check to see if he could see the window he had been looking through before since he wanted to keep his eyes firmly on the vision-obscuring mist. After moving ahead of the scuttler, though, he routinely glanced back to make sure that he could still see it behind him, knowing that he’d have to turn back if it became too hard to see.

The swirling vapor within the cloud parted as he moved through it. He made sure to look over and under his flight path periodically, just in case the ship wasn’t lying on his expected path, but the clouds seemed just as thick in that direction as any other.

Just as he was beginning to think that he should head back to the scuttler, he saw a dim shadow. He looked back and ensured that Calen’s ship wasn’t too poorly obscured before he pushed on and got his first clear view of the distressed vessel, a view that made him excited and pleased moments before making him uncertain.

The vessel was a one-man fighter ship of a standard, almost generic design. Only one of its engines was active, and then only if sparking violently could be considered “active.” But the thing that drew his attention the most was the symbol on the vessel’s hull that identified it as a vessel of the Dyson Empire.

***

Much earlier, on another world…

Sister Barris scrolled through the digital palimpsest, keeping fresh on all of the data regarding her client. Azar had little in the way of a public record, and much of it had been stored as hard copies instead of digitally. While the virtual record of Azar wasn’t nonexistent, he was one of the few true cases where Barris needed to find a literal paper trail. Which, unfortunately, meant waiting for the baristerbots to run their errands and scan the data. She wasn’t expecting to find any surprises that could hurt Azar’s case, but she knew that BristleCorp’s lawyers would be doing at least this much.

She was taking care of this particular batch of data sifting over a light lunch at a cafe that made the overcast day feel cozy. She traced her finger over the information on the flimsy screen, allowing the data to move past. She saw nothing upsetting, but there was less actual information than she wanted.

A man in a suit entered the cafe and scanned the room until he saw her at the table. The man approached her table and sat in the opposite chair. Barris looked up from her work.

“Can I help you?”

“Maybe,” he said. “You’re Sister Barris, yes? Representing Azar?”

“Oh,” she said. “Yes, I am. I was wondering if someone would be talking to me about that, actually. I didn’t expect to hear about it here. If you’d like to talk officially, my office would probably be more convenient.”

He shook his head.

“No, I don’t think we need anything so formal. In fact I’d like this kept quiet.”

“All right,” said Barris. “Maybe you can help me, then. My information on BristleCorp’s involvement is… strangely absent. Why can’t I find any official documentation for Azar’s project?”

“It was irrelevant information, so the records weren’t kept,” he said. Barris smiled.

“Seriously? That’s honestly the story you’re using? No one gets rid of data, not entirely.”

“It’s what I was told,” he said. “I don’t know all the details. I’m sure your client can tell you more.”

“He has, it’s just strange that the information isn’t officially there.”

“It may be a moot point,” he said. “You should drop this case. Tell Azar that our settlement options will be better for him in the long run.”

“I can’t do that,” she said.

“Why not?”

“For starters, I don’t believe that it’s true. He stands to make more money by keeping the money he has now, and the suggestion that it’ll cause negative impacts on the galactic economy is shaky. And even if it did, he’d have the money to easily remain unaffected.”

“I don’t think it’ll be better for him monetarily,” he said. “I think it’ll affect his quality of life. I’ve been hearing things from some of the higher ups… this isn’t an official meeting here. The official talk… it’s going to come later. And they’re already planning for you to disagree with them. It’s a formality. They’ve already contacted… unofficial people for when you tell them that you won’t drop it.”

“Unofficial?”

“I’d rather not go into it,” he said. “People unaffiliated with BristleCorp who can get their hands dirty. I don’t know exactly what it’ll mean, but if you don’t go along with BristleCorp, then they won’t have a reason to call these people off.”

Barris stared at the man’s face. She wondered if it was just a fear tactic, but she couldn’t see any sign of a lie on his face.

“I’ll think about it,” she said. “But I think I still won’t be abandoning my client.”

“Fine,” he said. “That’s good. For now. But when they really ask you later… probably at your office… I think you should change your answer then.”

“I won’t,” said Barris. “But thank you.”

The man nodded, rose, and left. Barris turned back to the palimpsest, but wasn’t sure she could focus on it. She expected a threat, but not a warning of a threat. Fortunately, the Order of Fierce Mercy had ways of protecting its clients. She’d just hoped they wouldn’t need them so soon.