Tag Archives: Pilot Tan

Episode 153: Uncooperative Plans

Xorn’Tal’s vision was not as advanced as a human’s, but he still appreciated staring out the window. The shifting stars as The Soul Survivor continued moving the pirated vessel through space were a pleasant distraction from the situation. The humans had a great capacity for complaint, finding new ways to both qualify and quantify how poorly things were going.

“I just want to know WHY it’s locked,” said Carmen. “We left the door to the kitchen propped open. I mean, how long has it been closed? Did Tan get loose?”

“Probably,” said Vince. “We had to move fast, and Xorn’Tal was improvising. No offense, Xorn’Tal.”

Xorn’Tal lifted one of his articulated vines in an imitation of the human gesture of raising a hand to acknowledge a comment when no offense was taken. He continued staring out the window, watching the drifting of the stars.

“Was it closed when he asked me to go to the end of the hallway?” asked Carmen. “I didn’t notice anything… would it be more normal to notice a door you left open being closed, or a door that’s usually closed being open?”

“I… don’t know. Why would I know that?”

“I don’t know, people know things. Maybe you watched a documentary or heard something in a class back in school one day.”

“You seriously think I’ve ever watched a documentary before?”

“You might’ve.”

“Have you?”

“Do special features on movies count? Like, the ones that explain how they made the movie?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve watched those.”

“So you HAVE watched a documentary!” said Carmen.

“I didn’t mean that kind of documentary. I meant, like… nature specials, or things that go into how other things are made.”

“Ship: Nearing,” said Xorn’Tal.

“Yeah, like how ships are m-… wait, what?” said Vince.

“Ship: Nearing,” repeated Xorn’Tal. “Course: non-intercept.”

“You mean we’re going to crash?” said Carmen, walking from the door to the kitchen area and toward the window.

“Likelihood: Negligible,” said Xorn’Tal. “Certainty: Greater: Intentional Piloting.”

“I think you’re right,” said Carmen, looking through the window.

“You mean that it’s not coming to intercept us, but the Soul Survivor’s moving to intercept it?”

“Or at least get close to it,” said Carmen. “Not sure what’s goin’ on between the sides of that polished crystal where his ears should be.”

She stepped from the window and walked to the door, where she began hammering on it insistently.

“Hey, Soul Patch! Let’s talk about the flight plan!”

“I am The Soul Survivor, and I have no information that you need,” said the now-familiar voice from the ship’s communication system.

“What’s the big deal? First you hijack a ship, and then you take it back?”

“Your refusal to allow Tan to return to the bridge has necessitated a change in plans. I will need to take a more direct approach to easily leave this system.”

“So you’re movin’ on to Plan B? That’s what you get for messin’ with the best.”

“That you choose not to aid in my plans and thus become a part of the legacy of The Soul Survivor is your folly, as partaking in my brilliance is a delight. I do not begrudge you your ignorance, but yes, I must move on to plans that require substantially less cooperation from you. Because you three amuse me, I have allowed the oxygen, lights, and gravity to continue running in your hallway. Pound upon that door all you wish; your antics will neither hasten nor delay your eventual fate.”

“You’re not worried that they’ll be able to find you when you get this close to them?” said Vince. “I don’t know much about your technology, but won’t that be a big power… thing? A drain or burst or moving empty space on their sensors or something?”

“You’ve seen too many poorly conceived films, but you are, astoundingly, correct when you say that there is a risk of discovery.”

“You: Anti-Worry?”

“Not as worried as you should be,” said The Soul Survivor. “I can survive and escape from any incarceration to which I am subjected. If they find you… such as through any attempted distractions on your part… I doubt that you will find their captivity as enjoyable as I shall.”

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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 141: Overclocked

He scanned his robotic body again. Repairs were eighty-four percent complete. He listened to the hostages again. Vince Flashman was starting to explain how this situation was like a movie he’d seen once. He estimated that he could finish his next stage of planning before a new speaker could respond to Flashman.

The Soul Survivor continued calculating the numerous methods of sending a message outside of the system. His “body”, such as it was, sat mostly repaired in the bridge of Tan’s ship, but until it was ready to reboot completely he was content to let his mind ride the circuitry of the ship’s computer itself. Objectively, he knew that there was little difference between his robotic body and a computer’s memory banks, but he never felt that he was truly alive until he returned to the tank-headed android. Having a preference for one piece of hardware… an occasionally inferior piece of hardware at that… was one of the eccentric luxuries that he allowed himself. It was one of the things that made him so charming, after all.

What he didn’t find charming was the surprisingly effective security measures in the ship, and the anti-communication measures established across the system. He had experienced communication breakdowns before, both intentional and accidental, but none of them were this thorough. Generally he could find a quick space where it was possible to bounce his signal, but he was simply not finding it. Similarly, the fact that he couldn’t work around the security feature that required Tan’s eye was infuriating, but he had only himself to blame for that. Verbally explaining his command to Tan while he was in the presence of the racers had kept the one sure-fire method of overwriting the ship’s security out of his grasp. He was growing soft and overconfident, and he wasn’t sure which of these he disliked more.

As far as his sensors could determine, Tan was still alive and mostly well, but confined by Xorn’Tal’s numerous vines. The refrigerator would be a safe enough place for him, but for now that was one benefit that The Soul Survivor lacked. Xorn’Tal’s vine-like abilities surprised him, though they shouldn’t have. The capabilities of the species were well documented. To that end, The Soul Survivor began a search for other warning signs: spores, pollen, seeds, and other unusual quirks that he might not expect due to his tendency to strategize for humans.

A seed was detected. The Soul Survivor examined it and determined its purpose: a possible growth from a Tharsha seed, situated in the ventilation shaft as it was, might shake things loose. Clever…

It was fortunate that aliens usually did not encounter each other before they became civilized enough for space travel, otherwise these surprising abilities would cause them to wipe each other out. The Tharsha Seed could remain where it was for now, though ideally not without some tweaking. In the meantime, he needed to find a way to communicate with the Galaxy beyond the Veskid system, and as long as he didn’t have Tan he couldn’t do that. However, he was willing to bet that one of the Dyson vessels could…

He scanned his robotic body again. Repairs were eighty-six percent complete. He listened to the hostages again. Vince Flashman was wrapping up explaining how this situation was like the movie. Things were progressing quickly.

Episode 130: Escape From The Space Galley!

“Let’s take out the pilot,” whispered Carmen.

Vince looked over his shoulder. Tan was retrieving water from the hydromill, and had generally been keeping to himself since the three racers had entered the galley. Vince turned back and leaned forward over the table.

“Why?” he said.

“He’ll help the Soul Survivor.”

Xorn’Tal ruffled in agreement, not trusting his translator’s audio to be silent enough to contribute to the conversation without being overheard.

“Will it help us, though?”

“Why wouldn’t it help us?”

“He’s not the real problem, and the real problem will notice that we’re getting violent, and given how the fight in space went I’m guessing that he’s already going to be looking out for us acting up. I don’t know if the element of surprise will help us or not but I’d rather not throw it away without an actual follow up plan.”

“Here’s the plan: stuff him in the refrigerator and then break our way out of this room.”

“Do you really think-”

“Tan: Welcome!” said Xorn’Tal, noisily interrupting the conspirators.

“Thanks,” said Tan, sitting down with his chilled glass of water. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m getting sick of this synthesized hydromill water.”

“Objection,” said Xorn’Tal. “Hydromill water: pure.”

“Do you have taste buds?” asked Tan, setting the glass onto the table. “Or at least any taste buds when you get water?”

“Negative.”

“That’s why, then,” said Tan. “All the impurities, the minerals, the unhealthy detritus that slowly poisons its drinkers, that’s where the flavor is.”

“As: cinder steel. To: scent: zhul flowers?”

“Yeah, exactly,” said Tan. “Human noses can’t pick up on that kind of thing.”

“Tan!” shouted the voice of the Soul Survivor. “Report to the bridge.”

“What’s up?” said Tan.

“I need your retina to overcome this security feature. Full control of this vessel is nearly mine, and the security measures are surprisingly intricate.”

“I’ll be right there.”

Tan stood and walked to the door as it unlocked and slid open. Carmen jumped from her seat and ran into the thoroughly surprised pilot, pushing him into the wall. Xorn’Tal was already shambling to the door to keep it open with a chair while Vince was running to help restrain Tan, grabbing onto the pilot’s arms and pulling them securely behind his back.

“He seems dazed,” said Vince.

“Good,” said Carmen. “Glad to see you’re on board.”

“There weren’t many options once you decked him. Not the best plan, but if it’s what we’re doing then we should do it right. Refrigerator?”

“Sure,” said Carmen, helping to carry Tan to the cold storage.

“Wait,” said Tan. “Wait… no…”

“He’s coming to!” said Vince.

“Should we hit him again?”

“Can’t that cause brain damage?”

“Sure, if you don’t do it right.”

“You can do it right?”

“Well, I’ve seen…”

“Movies?”

“Yeah,” said Carmen. “Probably not the best place for realistic medical combat knowledge.”

Xorn’Tal loomed up to the three humans, vibrating with the emotional equivalent of a sigh. The plant creature grabbed Tan from his fellow racers with his prehensile fronds, and looped a vine around the pilot before anyone realized what was happening. With a creaking, inhuman cry of pain, Xorn’Tal ripped the vine out of himself, and tied the loose end with a knot.

“You can do that?” said Vince.

“Method: capture prey,” he said, opening the refrigerator door and clearing out the rations and platforms within to make room for the prisoner. “Inefficient: sometimes necessary.”

“Are you gonna be all right?” asked Carmen.

“Vines: regenerate.”

“Great,” said Carmen. “Now, let’s head to the bridge. The Soul Survivor’s expecting someone soon, and we shouldn’t keep him waiting.”

Episode 124: Meeting Renfield

Surshen slithered out of his tree at the changing of the guard, nodding to Maurlias as she arrived to begin her time watching.

“Are there any concerns to watch for?” she asked, preparing to climb into the tree.

“I saw three Torgan heading south instead of west,” he said. “I will inform the hunters.”

“Wonderful.”

“I also heard a distant report, like thunder but compressed, or like the human makes at her forge to the northwest. This was followed by smoke near the swamp. It reminded me of the fires in the sky that herald the arrival of the aliens.”

“I will keep watch for more changes like that,” she said. “Who will you inform of this, though?”

“It is the same issue,” he said. “I will inform the hunters.”

***

Carmen stepped out of the airlock and almost crashed into the wall. She rolled her eyes.

“Lousy space ships,” she said. “Never enough room to move around on these things…”

“I apologize for the accommodations,” said the voice of The Soul Survivor. “And it will only become more cramped as we usher your two friends in here as well.”

“Look, why’re you even interested in us?”

“It’s nothing personal,” he said. “No ulterior motive beyond the most obvious one. I’m rebuilding right now and while I have vast resources hidden away elsewhere, much of it is inaccessible. Kidnapping the three greatest racers from The Corona Cup will allow for a quick influx of funds once I leave this system.”

“Wait, that’s it?” said Carmen. “This is just about money?”

“Yes, I apologize. I do enjoy the reputation for high crimes that I have garnered across the galaxy, but to finance every robot army, death ray, and mass hypnosis I must, alas, sully my hands with the work of the common gangster. Napoleon’s greatest weakness and tactical failing was a belief that his supplies were limitless, and I refuse to fall for such a self-imposed ruse.”

“You think the Racing Federation will just roll over and pay you? I hate to say it, but a lot of those suits have backgrounds as people like me. They might’ve sold out, but they’re not pushovers.”

“Oh, I know,” said The Soul Survivor. “I have done this many times, and I’ve learned that those who run sporting events can afford great amounts of money, but they shouldn’t be treated greedily. You have the hotheads who’ll try to ‘handle things themselves’, the villains who write off their employed celebrities as acceptable losses, even the pragmatists who’ll contact law enforcement agencies or mercenaries. The trick… especially with people like you, Miss Shift… is to demand payment, but a small enough amount that the risk of jeopardizing you in some way is laughable from a financial standpoint. It really is a business, you see. I fully expect that I’ll be able to release you and your friends shortly. Or, at least, shortly after I leave this system. While the Dyson Empire hasn’t disrupted my own capabilities, they have deafened the ears of anyone who might hear what I have to say from here. If you would, please follow the hall to the left. The galley will be a more comfortable place for you than this hallway.”

Carmen turned and walked. The ship was designed with only a single occupant in mind, and as such the walk was a brief one. A door slid open as she neared the end of the hall, revealing a tiny room with food and beverage dispensers, a small table, and dim lighting. A man in a pilot’s uniform stood as Carmen entered.

“Hello!” he said. “It’s good to mee-”

“You!” said the voice of the Soul Survivor. Instead of hearing the voice from all around as she had been, the voice now came from a device that Carmen had assumed to be a water cooler, but when she looked at it closely she saw that it was, in fact, a partially reconstructed version of the robotic body that The Soul Survivor was known for inhabiting. The trademark dome, filled with bubbling water, was recognizable as soon as she focused on it thanks to the countless news reports that had featured him over the years.

“Me?” said Carmen. “Yeah, me. Your kidnapping victim. Who else would I be?”

“I-”

A silence filled the room. Carmen looked at the man at the table.

“Is he always this surprised by people?”

“No,” said the man, looking worried. “Never. I don’t know what’s-”

“Silence,” said The Soul Survivor. “I’m sorry. Miss Shift, seeing things through remote cameras does not always convey the same emotional resonance as they might when seen through my active sensors.”

“What emotional resonance?” said Carmen. “I thought this kidnapping was just business.”

“It is. Business to which I must return, in fact. Xorn’Tal needs to be picked up and his fronds will make this more of a challenge. This is Tan, the captain and pilot of this vessel according to The Dyson Empire. He’s playing the role of my Renfield for today.”

“Would you mind not calling me that?” said Tan.

“Very well,” said The Soul Survivor. “You can’t help but see a comparison though.”

“Even so.”

“Carmen, Tan will show you how the machinery works if you require sustenance. Much of it requires his empirical code to activate, a hard-coded mechanism that I haven’t had the time or need to modify.”

The bubbling in the jar lowered after that. Carmen looked at Tan and nodded.

“So. You work for Emperor Dyson and The Soul Survivor at the same time?”

“I don’t work for The Soul Survivor per se,” he said. “But we’re friends! I’m putting my job on the line here, but he’s in a pinch and could use some assistance. So… yeah. I guess you could say I’m in both of those camps right now.”

“We’re gonna be great friends, then, I can tell,” said Carmen.

Episode 101: Dyson’s Delay

“I regret to inform you that The Soul Survivor has escaped our custody.”

Emperor Dyson turned from his workbench, and Zamona was struck by how different he looked. The Emperor, when dressed in his full regalia, acted stuffy, regal, and rarely personable, though often polite. No longer wearing his mask, crown, or robes and wearing his work outfit, he seemed happier, or at least more in place. An understanding smile crept across Dyson’s face, and he shook his head sympathetically.

“That’s a shame, Harry,” he said. “I’d been looking forward to figuring out how he worked. If I could have. Reportedly, some of the Soul Survivor’s technology is a mystery even to him… I doubt that on some level, though. It’s possible all of his upgrades have come through simpler technologies that he finds more accessible, but I expect that he knows, on some level, how it all works together.”

“Do you really think you wouldn’t be able to work it out?” asked Zamona. “We’ve been able to reverse engineer every piece of alien hardware we’ve come across so far. You do have a gift for this, if I may say so.”

“I’ve been lucky,” said Dyson, turning back to the scattered tools on his workbench. “The right insight at the right time… even just living this long. There will always be mysteries outside of our understanding, and it’s possible that The Soul Survivor, through accident or intention, represents some technology that our dedicated team couldn’t unravel. Over the years, his escapades have demonstrated a bizarre talent for denying classification. Which reminds me, what of Captain Ortega?”

“In custody, and cooperative,” said Zamona. “For now, at least. The two Morcalans are not cooperative, and one of them has escaped twice. She’s got an excellent grasp of strategy and combat. Nothing we can’t contain, but it is putting a strain on our local resources.”

“Understood. Do you believe that you will be able to reclaim The Soul Survivor?”

“Maybe,” said Zamona. “He’s missing. We presume that he is with the pilot who had pointed us to the crates that contained the, uh… water cooler parts.”

“Water cooler? Tell me, can you confirm that we ever even had The Soul Survivor captive?”

“I can’t,” said Zamona. “I’d say we didn’t. Unfortunately, the pilot’s vessel has vanished entirely. It was in formation for our assault on the Veskid system, but then it stopped being there. It’s either some sort of advanced cloaking, or a new application for your Virellium Wave technology.”

“Amazing. I want a report on all the details surrounding that disappearance.”

“I’ll arrange that. Shall we continue delaying?”

Dyson picked up a tool on his workbench and slowly turned it in his hand.

“No,” he said. “No, without any possible new insights from The Soul Survivor, delay makes no sense. All communications in and out of the system need to stop. I won’t have our quarry get away.”

“This won’t kill it, you know.”

“I know,” said the Emperor. “But it’ll hurt it. We’ve hurt it before. It’s been dying for a long time now, but it won’t die without a little more effort, and every time we hurt it we get closer. Even if we don’t succeed in our true goal, the Veskid system will make a fine addition to this new empire. Begin the attack.”

Episode 100: Jungle Jaunt

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

“Tourist.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait,” said Ortega. “That’s not-”

“Hydromill active,” said Doctor Carnegie.

“Begin the hydration.”

“Wait!” said Ortega.

The three researchers froze, each watching Captain Ortega carefully.

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

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

“Is… no. No, there’s no danger.”

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” asked Doctor Williams.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much earlier, on another world…

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

“Ugh, there?” said Zack.

“Don’t want to go to Ravelar?”

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

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

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

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

“I think it’s a risk,” said Zack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Naturally.”

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

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

“Is that Faulkner?” asked Harold.

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

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

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

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

Zack tapped the table and stared at Harold.

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 99: Cooler Heads Will Prevail

“It looks different than I remember,” said Commander Sanchez, staring through the view screen. “I saw The Soul Survivor on the news once. The dome had a different curvature.”

“According to Captain Andrew Ortega, The Soul Survivor had a knack for reinventing himself,” said Pilot Tan. He stood on the bridge of the Morcalan Scuttler. His briefing on his own ship had gone well, but according to Commander Sanchez they wanted his insight into the vessel. Most of his information wasn’t anything that the Wraithstrike teams couldn’t figure out on their own, but he was able to identify the storage crates that contained the disassembled pieces of The Soul Survivor’s robotic body. Alsafi stood next to him, holding up the sturdy dome that Tan had identified as what passed for the “head.”

“Can I keep it?” asked Alsafi, holding it up to the light.

“The Emperor’s Herald says no,” said Sanchez. “The Emperor has an interest in unique and potentially useful technologies, and the still undocumented mechanisms within The Soul Survivor’s body count. Besides, even if it was the policy to allow Wraithstrike team leaders to keep trophies of this sort, that honor would fall to Wraithstrike Delta’s leader, not you.”

“Aww,” said Alsafi. “Stupid Delta team… Paul gets all the fun.”

“All the hypothetical fun, at least,” said Sanchez.

“The Soul Survivor can reactivate easily,” said Tan. “I don’t know how it all works, but Captain Ortega was adamant that no moisture be allowed in or near the helmet. I’m not sure if that warning stands when the helmet is removed from the body, but Ortega remained concerned about The Soul Survivor’s capabilities even when he was firmly in custody in the storage crates.”

“Your warning is appreciated and noted,” said Sanchez. “I will pass it on, and it will almost certainly be ignored. The Soul Survivor is to be interrogated If filling the jar with liquid is the way to do it, then it’s the way it will be done. We have rooms shielded from transmissions and researchers who don’t use the cybernetic lenses, though, so they won’t be at risk for the… ‘epileptic hypnosis’ that you described. It seems that traveling with Captain Ortega exposes people to outlandish scenarios.”

“The alternative was waiting, possibly forever, to be found in the Cypulchral Cloud,” said Tan. “It was worth the risk.”

“Plus talk about a war story,” said Alsafi. “Stranded in a hostile, uncharted region of space, the only hope of rescue being your enemies, contact with an ancient alien vessel… we should put this in our recruitment vids.”

“It does have all the right elements,” said Sanchez. “Just enough of the horrors of war to be exciting, and not enough to scare off recruits. Speaking of the horrors of war, you’ve both got ships to get back to. Wraithstrike Delta’s leader will drop you off on his way to bringing in this Scuttler for examination and possibly use during the second or third wave should they be necessary.”

“Stupid Paul…” said Alsafi.

***

“You need to get up, Captain,” said a voice. “I need some information.”

Captain Ortega groggily realized that he could think thoughts. His brain was still trying to reaffirm itself after the neural pulse, but he only had the dimmest recollection of that. He opened his eyes and took a moment to recall how to interpret visual stimuli. He was in a small meeting room. A metal table was in front of him, and he was sitting in a chair. He shook his head and looked up, seeing a familiar face on the other side of the table.

The man was tall enough that Ortega’s initial instinct was that he wasn’t even a human. He had dark skin and unbelievably thick muscles, especially in his arms. He wore a uniform that was cut to fit loosely on him, indicating to Ortega that the figure was not truly a part of the military structure but had a great amount of influence within it, a detail that wasn’t obvious from their previous view screen encounters. He also saw the massive gauntlets that the man war, as if he was a prisoner.

“Zamona,” he said. “Nice to meet you in person. It’ll be a relief not to end our conversation with you trying to blow up a ship that I’m in.”

“Yes, I do apologize,” said Harold Zamona. “Our first meeting didn’t give us a chance to get acquainted. I had a war to monitor and an Emperor to represent. That modified Morcalan science vessel needed to be destroyed. Imagine my surprise, then, when two days later I receive a transmission indicating that a self destruct sequence has been activated, and one of the faces captured by the ship before it explodes is yours. I looked up your record then… have I bitten off more than I can chew with you as a hostage?”

“Have I?” said Ortega. “I’ve not had time to look you up, but Doctor Rogers knew who you were, and seemed a bit star struck.”

“Yes, the… ‘Soul Survivor’ as he calls himself.”

“His name is Doctor Silas Rogers.”

“Mine is Harold Zamona, but sometimes people still call me The Iceberg. Old names can stick around.”

“He’s delusional. Calling him that feeds into his delusions.”

“I can respect that,” said Zamona. “I’ll be sure to instruct the technicians to only refer to him as Doctor Rogers when we wake him up for his interrogation.”

Any remaining grogginess left Ortega immediately. He tried to jump out of his chair, only now realizing the magnetic restraints that were holding his arms and legs in place.

“You can’t!” he said. “He’s deactivated, don’t risk waking him up. He needs to be firmly contained in a prison before he’s awakened, and only one with special containment procedures.”

“All precautions will be taken,” said Zamona, waving a gauntlet-clad hand dismissively. “We don’t intend to underestimate him. For starters, his apparent ability to hack the cybernetic lenses worn by many of our troops has been taken into consideration. The procedure will take place entirely within a network dead zone so that he can’t reach beyond the confines of the room, and the researchers will not be wearing the standard lenses.”

“I’m glad you think you’re taking precautions,” said Ortega. “He’s too smart, though, and he has technology in his body that are decades ahead of anything else.”

“Not decades ahead of us,” said Zamona. “Our Emperor is a brilliant scientist.”

“Perhaps a brilliant technologist,” said Ortega. “Everything I’ve seen other than the cybernetic lenses is just a reworking of an earlier technology, and the lenses themselves are based on a number of other pre-existing technologies. It’s impressive, definitely impressive, but not ground-breaking… except, perhaps, the Emperor’s Eye and the Virellium Wave.”

Ortega watched the Herald’s eyes carefully. They narrowed. There was a definite reaction to the names. If Zamona knew he’d been in Morcala for both events, was the reaction to the names themselves being known, or a reminder of just how much Ortega had seen?

“Incidentally,” said Ortega, trying to move on, “I’m sure you’re aware that cybernetic implants… which would include the lenses… designed to give subliminal suggestions to their users is a violation of a number of interstellar conventions. Conscripting soldiers is also generally frowned upon, especially in the Angelor Republic.”

“I’m aware of both facts. I’m also aware of the fact that conscript-based armies tend to have a higher likelihood of insurrection and mutiny, but we’ve been fine so far. Captain, I need to know what the Astroguard knows about Emperor Dyson, and what their intended plan is.”

“As far as I know, he’s just a matter of concern that they’ll prepare for,” said Ortega. “War with Morcala was likely as close as he could get to Astroguard jurisdiction without direct intervention. As soon as the public becomes aware that you can apparently make an entire armada jump further than any recorded single vessel, they’ll become very active in stopping you.”

“Good to know. Final question: will you assist us in waking Doctor Rogers, and making sure that he doesn’t trick us during his interrogation?”

Ortega hesitated. He didn’t want to do anything that might help the Dyson Empire, and an uncontrolled Doctor Rogers might be just the sort of wild card that could help to destabilize whatever Dyson was planning next. On the other hand, there was always the chance that unpredictable chaos might be favorably directed…

“Absolutely,” said Captain Ortega. “He’s bad enough without whatever you people would do to him.”

Episode 97: Triumphant Rescue

The blast of emerald energy arced from the intruder’s neural pulse pistol, striking Captain Ortega’s unprotected head before the suit’s danger-recognition features could activate the flight suit’s helmet. Ensign Trell watched the Astroguard captain fall to the ground and heard the sounds of panels quickly opening and rapid footfalls. She jumped to the door of the galley and tapped the door’s control buttons, causing it to slide shut just as another cysuit-clad intruder came into view. Trell punched the door’s locking feature to keep the new figure out and spun around to see the first assailant already on the ground and taking aim with her pistol. Trell jumped at the intruder, grabbed the wrist of the arm with the weapon, and shouldered the attacker into the wall.

Trell slammed the arm again the wall four times, stopping only when the attacker dropped the weapon. She pulled back her arm and launched it into the side of the intruder’s face, an act that loosened the observation crown on the woman’s head.

Too late, Trell registered the sound of the click and the whir of an energy weapon building a charge. She looked over her shoulder to see Tan, nervous and shaking, firing the neural pulse pistol.

***

“Hail Dyson,” said Alsafi, leader of the Wraithstrike Beta team, concluding her call. She turned back to Tan, smiling. She removed her observation crown now that it would no longer help with the call, revealing her unobstructed face for the first time. Her black hair was naturally cut short to accommodate the bulky headgear that was common among the special operations units of most major governments, group that Dyson wished to join.

“That went so much better than I expected,” she said. “When the scatterport-glitch split our party, I was sure we were done for. I still can’t believe that I took out Captain Andrew Ortega!”

“I know, right?” said Tan. “He really saved me from the Morcalans. I swear, those two would’ve killed me by now if he hadn’t been playing diplomat.”

“I kinda feel bad about it,” she said. “I’ve got a little action figure of him at home.”

“Seriously?” said Tan.

“Moment of weakness,” she said. “Honestly, it was just a repaint of a Captain Mayday figure. Enough about that, though. Commander Sanchez was surprised to hear that there was an Astroguard Agent here, and she’s conferring with the Emperor’s Herald to see if this changes anything. From what I’ve heard, Captain Ortega’s a more or less free agent, not really attached to any specific commissions or posts for more than a mission or two at a time, the only exception being the occasional seasons spent as a field instructor for their academy.”

“He wasn’t working with anyone,” said Tan. “His mission was just to capture The Soul Survivor, and once he finished that he started helping the Morcalans. He didn’t have much choice, really, but he wasn’t exactly eager to get away from them once he knew more about how effective our forces were.”

“It’s exciting, isn’t it?” said Alsafi. “I was worried that the system after Morcala would’ve been more prepared for us, but with the upgrade the Emperor installed we should be able to get anywhere we want, whenever we want to get there. Well, anywhere Dyson wants to go, at least.”

“Yeah,” said Tan. He leaned back and watched the ceiling, despite the amazing display of stars in the nearby window. “I’ve gotta say, I’m not sure I’m cut out for the war effort. I like helping, I do, but this is nerve wracking.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” said Alsafi. “As soon as we stop pushing out, the empire’ll probably be able to afford getting more regular recruits with fewer conscripts. And nobody’s gonna doubt your commitment if you step down after this first series of battles. I mean, you helped me take out Captain Andrew Ortega.”

“I suppose I did,” he said, smiling. “It seems strange, though… he’s normally one of the good guys.”

“I think he’s still a good guy,” said Alsafi. “He’s just opposing Emperor Dyson, that’s all.”

The cybernetic lens in Tan’s eye flashed more of its array of subliminal suggestions, just as it did for most of Dyson’s forces. Tan nodded.

“You’re right, of course. We’re not going to be hurting them, are we?”

He looked down at the still unconscious bodies of Captain Ortega and Ensign Trell, gently tapping Ortega’s shoulder with his shoe.

“I doubt it,” said Alsafi. “They’ll probably just be imprisoned for a while, something that’ll make sure that they don’t do any more damage after their brains get back into gear.”

“Good,” said Tan. “Didn’t much care for the Morcalans, but Ortega was nice. Besides, if we killed prisoners we might be the bad guys here.”

“Right. Anyway, prepare yourself for a communication from Commander Sanchez. She has some questions for you, and then we’ll need you to go back to the Morcalan vessel.”

“Why?”

“Just wrapping up a few pieces of the investigation. Besides, I wanna be there when they uncrate the Soul Survivor.”

Episode 96: Enemy Engagement

“Ensign Trell to Captain Calen. Come in, Captain Calen.”

Trell waited by the auxiliary communications array in Tan’s ship, sending a second hailing frequency to the Scuttler, ten minutes after the first. Her first instinct had been to open the hailing channel from the pilot’s seat, but remembered that a sudden call from Dyson’s forces might require a faster response from Tan that could interrupt her work. Her work at the moment, though, was calling her Captain, and she wasn’t receiving a response.

She walked from the auxiliary communications array to the ship’s dining chamber, a room even smaller than the Scuttler’s. Tan sat in one chair while Captain Ortega, still in his Astroguard flight suit, stood next to him.

“Trell!” said Ortega. “All wrapped up with Calen? I was just telling our host about-”

“No time for pleasantries,” said Trell. “Something’s wrong. I can’t get in touch with the Captain.”

“She’s not responding again?”

“Not at all,” said Trell. “She might have been occupied with some business the first time, but not for this long.”

“That’s starting to get suspicious,” said Tan.

“No, the first time was when it was suspicious,” said Trell. “If it happens twice, it means something has gone wrong.”

“Okay, let’s not jump to conclusions,” said Ortega. “Calen’s probably fine, but let’s play it safe and proceed as if she’s not. Could there be an issue with our communication’s array? Or with hers?”

“I ran a diagnostic the first time the message didn’t get through. We’re fine.”

“You were using the auxiliary array, though,” said Tan. “Could that cause a problem? Maybe communicating through the primary array at my station-”

“A problem like that would’ve been found by the diagnostics,” said Trell. “I checked.”

“Good,” said Tan. “I can’t count the number of times that I was sure I had a problem and there was just something unplugged.”

“Working from the primary station is also a great way to be caught on camera if your friends in the empire call,” said Trell.

“What are the odds of a communications glitch on Calen’s side?” asked Ortega, intervening when he saw Tan’s eyes narrow. “Have we sent any communications successfully since the simulated explosion?”

“Yes,” said Trell. “Nonverbal signals from computers mainly, but yes. Besides, if there was an error on that end, I’d receive a notification here. This is just a case of a channel getting to its destination but not being opened.”

Ortega tapped the wall with one of his hands. Usually he’d chalk up a situation like this to simple errors. This time, however, he had to factor in everything he knew about Captain Calen and everything he knew about the ways that problems occur in wartime espionage missions. A feeling began to creep up on him that he’d felt more often than he could count.

“Two quick questions,” he said. “First, you’re absolutely sure that Doctor Rogers wouldn’t be able to get out of that shipping crate?”

“Those crates were designed with the quick imprisonment of enemies in mind,” said Trell. “That includes abnormally tech savvy ones like your great enemy. I wouldn’t think his helmet would have regrown by now, though.”

“I don’t think it would, but he’s always creating improvements for his body,” said Ortega. “It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he’s developed a faster repair system. I don’t think he’s a factor, but I like being sure… Tan, can this ship detect where people are?”

“I think so,” he said. “Why should we do that, though? We’re all here, and you say that the Soul Survivor’s not involved.”

“He’s not the only villain in the galaxy,” said Ortega. “Tan, have the vessel scan for other entities. Trell, do you think-”

With a bang, a panel in the ceiling burst down and into the room prompting a yelp from Pilot Tan. A woman in a black stealth suit with a six-eyed observation crown leaned down and into the room, holding a green neural pulse pistol aimed at Captain Ortega.

“No more time for subtlety,” she shouted, pulling the trigger and firing an emerald burst of light.