Tag Archives: poison

Episode 167: Rock Beats Pauper

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

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

“If she survived reentry,” Chala said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” said Zack.

“We can’t go this way.”

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

“What’s the problem?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just lucky I guess,” said Zack.

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

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

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

“Martially sound?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 162: Sneezing Powder

“Looks great, though,” said Zack. “Sorry.”

“Hmm?”

A bright flash of light lit up the pit and Zack twirled his remaining pistol, hidden under a fold of his coat. Nectra gasped and held up her hands as the light and the scent of ionization flooded the air around her. The sounds of cheering Sthenites vanished, and she dropped the staff, not sure what was happening.

Silence ensued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are Nectra, yes?”

“Ye-”

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

“What?”

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

“You’re a friend of Zack’s?”

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

Episode 158: Dressing to Kill

Zack wiped the sweat from his brow and looked over the array of daggers, spears, and swords before him, barely suppressing a cough. He could tell from the cloth of woven reeds that these were wrapped in that the Sthenites kept these weapons with care, but none of them truly felt appropriate for the situation.

“And the Purcellian Strikers are definitely out, then?”

“They’re only permissible if your competitor agrees to it,” said Chala. “And if your competitor has a suitably comparable weapon. Nectra doesn’t have a gun.”

“I’m telling you, she doesn’t need one,” said Zack. “Her staff is deadly, and I might die out there otherwise.”

“There are plenty of staves and cudgels here that you could take,” said Chala, gesturing to another rolled up parcel of woven reeds. “I think there’s one not unlike a shillelagh from Earth over there, actually, it might even be superior to her staff, weapon-wise.”

“Her staff can turn into a virellium-powered energy-scythe!”

“So you say,” said Chala, unrolling the new parcel and withdrawing a sturdy looking branch. “For what it’s worth, this is a legendary item that the Sthenites believe to contain magical properties. You won’t need to escape from your hut again to go looking for better weapons.”

“I’d rather use my strikers,” said Zack. “If she has a weapon she’s comfortable with, then I should have one as well. And I didn’t escape.”

“Fine, but pick another weapon anyway in case the Sthenites don’t let you use them. And you might not call it an escape, but when you get out without the guards seeing you I don’t think the Sthenites will know what else to call it.”

Zack sighed and looked over the options. One dagger in particular seemed dangerous enough to deal actual damage while also being simple enough for him to use. It was a hard, red substance not unlike chitin, and bent at the tip so that it was almost a sickle. He picked it up, and felt its weight.

“What can you tell me about this one?”

“It’s made from one of the mandibles of a threzh, a kind of cantankerously territorial plant creature. If it still has any of its poison in it, that could be a useful counter to a fast-moving energy scythe.”

“What’s the poison do?”

“A threzh can use it to slow or weaken its prey, sometimes fully paralyzing a creature for hours to make it easy to drag the prey back out of its territory. The Sthenites would only leave this weapon here if they thought it still had some of its kick, but this isn’t the first ritual duel it’s been available for. It’d probably slow down a person’s metabolism, at least, and make them slower.”

“That might give me an edge where a speed-freak like Nectra’s concerned,” said Zack. “I’ll take it. But I still want to use my blasters.”

“Great,” said Chala. “Hold onto them. I’ll make sure that Chala’s preparations are going well as well. If she’s using her staff, that might give you grounds to use your own weapon of choice. And practice with it a little instead of your pistols, it smells light lightning in here.”

“Wonderful. And I will.”

Chala turned to the door but stopped at the frame.

“So… are you really going to kill Nectra?”

“Maybe,” said Zack. “I don’t want to. I don’t think she wants to kill me either, but she was definitely willing to not too long ago. You’re one of the Sthenites yourself since you endured your own trial, right? Do you know of any such trials by combat ending peacefully?”

“No,” she said, stepping through the door. “Good luck, Gamma.”

***

“You look surprisingly relaxed.”

Nectra’s massive eyes fully opened without, it seemed, any transitional time from being fully closed. Chala mostly succeeded in not flinching as she gestured to the two pillars of stacked rocks in Nectra’s guarded hut. The shangmere herself was hanging upside down, using her feet to clutch the staff that stretched between the miniature towers. Nectra’s mouth stretched into an alarming smile, one almost made less disconcerting by being flipped.

“Thanks!” said Chala. “I’m trying to meditate before killing Gamma.”

“That answers that, then.”

“Answers what?” Chala’s wings opened and beat once, flipping her upright and letting her perch on the staff.

“I wasn’t sure if you were actually planning on killing Zack.”

“I don’t think I have a choice,” said Chala, her smile crashing into a morose frown. “The Sthenites will kill him anyway if I don’t… and while I’m not happy with blood on my hands I have to admit that this was what I wanted to do anyway when I first started hunting him. And sure, Zack said he could help reopen my legal case using evidence gathered here on Mandrake, but if I kill him I wouldn’t need that anyway and now I just wish I hadn’t made friends with him first.”

Nectra stood, stretched out her arms and wings, and fell back. Chala gasped, but realized that the shangmere was falling slower than a human would, and that she was falling onto the bed of reeds that the Sthenites had given Nectra to use when they remanded her to the hut. Chala watched Nectra lie motionless for a few moments before she sighed, rolled onto her side, and pulled one of her wings over her face like a blanket.

“This shouldn’t be so complicated. Or… actually, it should be complicated. I like complicated. I can work with complicated. This shouldn’t be so simple and horrible. The Sthenites have awful customs if this is what they make people do, just awful. If I kill Zack, do you think he’ll be mad at me?”

Chala didn’t mentally stumble over the question, but felt like it was a question that should cause stumbling. She walked to the mat between the rock pillars and knelt by the bat-like alien.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think he’d be mad at you for killing him. He’d probably prefer the alternative, but he understands how delicate the situation is. He’s constructed a situation where a Suzerain might even be able to step in to prevent a trial from being completed. With a different Suzerain who had more support from the different tribes, that might even be a remote possibility.”

Nectra flapped her wing back into place and sat upright.

“I guess we’ll just have to cross that road when we come to it. Thanks for not saying anything about claws earlier.”

“What?”

“When I talked about getting blood on my hands. I’ve used that expression before… sometimes I have humans stop expressions I’m making where I talk about hands, saying I should use claws instead. I love human expressions, though. And that expression involves hands.”

“You don’t exactly have claws, either,” said Chala. “They’re a bit pointier than human hands, but they’re definitely hands.”

“I know, right?” said Nectra. “Though I sorta do if you count my feet.”

“Those aren’t really-”

“Nah, my feet have claws. They’re really good for catching fish.”

“I-”

“Like, amazing. I’m great at catching fish. Fishing for humans is so slow, they just get in boats and wait for ages forgetting that the point is catching fish, thinking that waiting in a boat is the point, and I normally really like how humans do things, but catching fish is supposed to be active. Fly over the water, wait to see the ripples, splash in, and bam! Lunch. And, yes, I know that some humans hunt fish with spears, but there’s still a lot of waiting involved in that even if it’s more proactive. And don’t get me started on humans who fish with nets.”

Chala nodded, following the conversation flow.

“The Sthenites prefer hunting the native fish equivalent with spears. A few tribes use nets. Some just slither into the water to see what they can grab with their bare hands.”

“Ooh, now that’s nice… I couldn’t do that. I don’t see underwater very well if I’m actually under the water.”

“Speaking of nets and spears, though, I’m supposed to ask what sort of weapon you intend to use for the trial?”

Nectra pointed at the staff stretched between the rock pillars over Chala’s head. Chala glanced back up at it.

“Because there are plenty of weapons we can also offer-”

Nectra shook her head and pointed at the staff again.

“My staff can turn into a scythe around Zack. An energy scythe. Why would I use anything else?”

“Are scythes actually good as weaponry?”

“They’re better than good,” said Chala. “They’re awesome and cool as weaponry.”

“But are they capable?”

“Look, I’m using the scythe. Even if for some crazy reason a scythe wasn’t a good weapon, it can also be a staff which is also an amazing weapon, plus Zack is scared to death of this thing. You should see the look on his face whenever I activate it.”

“Zack feels there’s a disparity here, and that he should be permitted to use his pistols if you get to use your staff.”

“That seems fair,” said Nectra.

“For him to have a ranged weapon while you only have-”

“My awesome scythe? Of course it’s fair. I’m a little insulted by this anti-scythe attitude you’ve got.”

“Fair enough,” said Chala. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll take my leave now. Good luck prepping for the fight. Someone will be along shortly to deliver some fruit and… if you’re interested… I can have them include some fish as well.”

“Oh, yes, please,” said Nectra, rising to her feet and leaping back to her perch on the staff. “I’d love to give some of the local food a try.”

Chala nodded and walked out while Nectra clutched the staff with her feet, rolled forward, and resumed her attempts at meditation.

***

“Where is it?”

The Phantom Matador lifted his head and turned to look back, expertly revealing only his eye as Chala entered his hut. The two Sthenite guards rose to a firmer attention and lifted their spears at the sight of the new company, though the humans ignored them. The Matador turned back to resume looking at his cell wall, tapping his foot and creating a gentle clink as the wrought-iron manacle at his leg jingled.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, his sonorous voice echoing through the room, theatrically enhanced by either natural skill, his deceptive psychic abilities, or some quirk of the acoustics of the hut. “I do, however, see that you have my hat and my mask.”

“These are to trade. I give these to you, and you tell me what I need to get it back.”

“I think I agree… but sincerely, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The Oborosian Stone,” said Chala. “The Fact. You broke into my hut and stole it, Starprey.”

“Oh, that was your hut? I’m sorry, I should have known. Knick-knacks from Veskid and articles of clothing not suited for the serpentine form, and you being the only humanoid I’ve seen here apart from Gamma and myself should have made it obvious.”

“Now that you know what it is, how about that deal?”

The Matador tapped his foot again and sighed.

“I would agree, but I can not help you. I don’t have it.”

“Then where did you hide it?”

“I didn’t. The… Oborosian Stone? The Fact wasn’t on my person when I woke. I assumed that, like my hat and mask, it had been taken by Gamma.”

“He didn’t take those,” said Chala. “He’d passed out by the time the Sthenites located him. They removed your hat and mask.”

“Then they have the Fact. Or Gamma does. Or the bat.”

“Nectra.”

“So she told you her name. She may be a brilliant researcher, but she knows nothing of maintaining mystique.”

“She knows it’s childish and accomplishes nothing.”

“It’s an art. I won’t be appreciated in my time. Now… considering that I don’t have what you want, and don’t know where it is, I have no more to offer you. Might I have them back as a matter of courtesy?”

“Why? Zack seemed interested in knowing who you are.”

“You mean he still hasn’t come to see me?” said the Matador, turning to look at Chala. She’d already seen his face when the mask had been removed, but she was still struck by how memorably average he looked. His face didn’t quite match the back of his head, with neither appearing strange except in relation to each other. She considered the possibility that he was using his psychic abilities to confuse something about his appearance in her mind, but dismissed the level of effect it might have.

“No,” she said. “Like I said, he passed out after you did. You woke up before he did. He’s not had time.”

“Not even to gloat?”

“He’s on the run from someone.”

“Nectra, yes, but I thought they were patching things up.”

Chala coughed, not sure what to say to that.

“Wait… are you telling me there’s someone else after him? Even here on Mandrake? That poor man… he’s blessed with an inordinate amount of bad luck.”

“That might be true,” she said. “I don’t know many details myself, only that he’s in a hurry and Nectra’s on his side. He and she will be fighting to the death soon, and then he has to leave.”

“I feel that I’ve missed something,” he said. “Please explain. I still haven’t picked up on the finer points of the language, and I doubt my wardens would be talkative even if I had, but under what circumstances do people on the same side fight to the death?”

“No,” she said. “You don’t need to know anything while you wait for your trial. Which will begin shortly after Zack’s concludes.”

“I see,” he said. “Then we have little more to discuss. Except for… my hat and mask?”

“Why do you need it on a world where I already know what you look like and literally no one else cares?”

“It’s an art form,” he said. “You’ll appreciate it after my time. I’d ask for my sword to complete the picture, but as I understand it I’m being tried as a criminal, so that might not be reasonable.”

Chala narrowed her eyes but cautiously folded the mask and set it into the hat before tossing the wide-brimmed sombrero cordobés to the prisoner. He smiled, bowed his head, and extended the hat forward with his hand as if having just doffed it.

“Many thanks. Even without the sword, I have everything from my Traje de Sombras. I can finally dress to kill.”

Episode 135: Falling In

Zack pushed his way through the tree branches and vines, keeping an eye on those places in the vibrant foliage where it seemed likely that someone else had already stepped through them, bending the vegetation out of place. He wasn’t sure what the extent of the Phantom Matador’s powers were, but he was working on the assumption that the Matador couldn’t actually teleport. While not unheard of, such capabilities were well beyond the standard feats of psychic ability. Some suggested that the reason for the rarity was that governments were quick to detect those who were gifted with teleportation and arranged for such people to quietly disappear into various medical experiments or spy training groups, but such people also claimed to have seen things like the Void Pilgrim. Zack, while willing to accept a lot as possible, chose not to believe such theories without actual evidence.

“You’re dedicated. I will concede that much.”

Zack stopped and looked behind him. Was there something in the tree branch? A humanoid figure, obscured by the shadows, was standing overhead. Zack looked at the tracker in his hand, and the direction of the Phantom Matador was ahead of him, not behind.

“Not much else to do,” said Zack. He coughed, and kept following the faint traces of the trail, keeping his eyes on the direction suggested by the tracking device.

“I don’t know what you told Nectra,” said the Phantom Matador, his voice coming from ahead now. “But I don’t approve. If she doesn’t kill you, she returns to a life of imprisonment.”

“I don’t like her tryin’ to bump me off,” said Zack. He wiped his brow and took a long look at the screen of the tracker, just to make sure it was lining up with what he expected.

“I don’t mean to say that you should surrender yourself to her. I am an advocate of escape, after all. But leading her to the mistaken belief that you can offer her another way out of her situation? Your false hope will do more harm than good as she struggles against the faceless corporations and spineless bureaucrats who wield all the power.”

“Did good when I did it before,” Zack said, quietly. He stopped moving forward to catch his breath. The voice sounded like it was coming from overhead and forward. Would this be another trick of psychic ventriloquism, or was the Phantom Matador actually waiting in a tree?

A boulder arced through the underbrush. Zack gasped, stumbled backward, and narrowly avoided the rocky missile as it collided into a tree, sticking into the spongy bark with a dull thud.

“You’re slow,” said the Matador’s voice. “Slower than when we dueled at the hotel.”

“Didn’t you peg me then?” asked Zack, clumsily getting back to his feet.

“I grazed you. And you had two boulders to worry about. Boulders that were moving faster. Either you had a wonderful day then, or you’re having a dark day now.”

“Not as dark as you’re about to have,” said Zack, continuing to follow the trail. He kept his eyes and ears open for more incoming boulders, but it was hard to focus on his surroundings while keeping an eye on the trail and the tracker.

“She’s quite taken with you, you know.”

“Excuse me?” said Zack, grabbing an oddly angled branch that was blocking most of the path and stepping under it.

“Nectra. I believe she’s enamored with you. She hasn’t said so in so many words, but you should hear how she talks about you. It makes your persuasion that you can help her all the more reprehensible, Zack. Tell me, has she ever had a clear chance at ending your life where you were spared only through her hesitation?”

Zack stopped for a moment but shook his head and kept moving.

“She’s not cut out for being an assassin,” said Zack. “That’s not something to be ashamed of.”

“Don’t dodge the evidence, Zack. Like me, she’s a romantic. She’s completely enthralled with humans and human culture. And from what she’s said of you, you’re exactly the kind of tragic figure who fits into melodramatic tales of star-crossed lovers, at least in her eyes. On the run from your previous employers, with a price on your head… and her being sent to murder you as the only way to prove her innocence and gain freedom… you can’t deny the dramatic appeal. You don’t have a disfigured twin who might want to ruin your happiness out of spite, do you?”

“Yeah, but I turned him in for fraud and he’s still got three years on his sentence. Makes visiting the parents awkward, but the bounty was nice.”

“I… can’t tell if you’re serious.”

“Buddy, I think you’re crazy about Nectra. But even if you’re not, it doesn’t really change anything. She’s still a rational… mostly rational scientist. Might be a little loopy from trying to wrap her head around Virellium, but-”

Another rock launched from the brush to his side. Zack jumped back, falling off the trail, and landing in a patch of soil softer than the rest. His feet immediately sank to his ankles and, quickly, to just below his knees. He tried to lift his foot out, but the motion only caused him to sink further. His eyes grew wide as he turned to look at the boulder that landed at his side, seeing it slowly sinking along with him.

“I was right! You’re definitely slower. And not noticing as much from your surroundings as you should. Are you feeling well? I’m sorry, don’t worry about that. I was delighted to find actual quicksand in this jungle. You’re probably struggling to remember everything you’ve heard or read about it, and trying to remember which facts about quicksand are real, and which are just the product of poorly researched adventure movies, and trying to figure out how this alien soil would make it different, if it would make it different at all.”

“Say, buddy, what say you help me out of this?” said Zack, looking around for something he could grab onto to pull himself out of the patch.

“But why would I do that after I spent so long carving away all the spare vines and branches that might have provided a lifeline? All that effort would have been for nothing. And then you’d just try to catch me again.”

“No, no I can… not do that,” said Zack. “I’ll give you a day’s head start. Or… heck, I’d stop trying to catch you entirely, you’ll probably die on this planet anyway.”

“That’s very generous of you, but I think not. Good luck, Zack Gamma. I leave you to your fevered thoughts and your inescapable fate.”

Episode 119: Mine and Mire

“Heed my words, Vox Cul-Dar. The time has come for you to wake.”

Vox’s bulbous eyes snapped open.

“I rise a new person, prepared for a new day, prepared for my future,” he said, automatically reciting the words that had been part of the first few moments of cognitive thought of every waking since he had first joined the monastery as a child. He scanned the compartment, a room with a low ceiling and long shadows cast from broken windows. He saw little dust, but dirt and leaves littered the compartment. When he recognized the molded plastic in the center of the room as the frame for a chair, the purpose of the chamber came to his mind.

“How did I get in a space ship?” he said. “And… Rendelac, what’s become of Fletch?”

“Fletch left you here after I requested that she not severely wound you to hinder your further progress. You have been unconscious for nearly seven hours. Vox Cul-Dar, I-”

“Seven hours… she’s got an incredible head start, then. We’ll have to hurry.”

“I would ask you, not for the first time, to refrain from this task, Vox Cul-Dar. She left you here when I gave my word to ask you to stop. She represents a more active danger than the already problematic environment of this world.”

“I appreciate your concern, Rendelac, but-”

“Forgive my interruption, but I believe we are sinking.”

Vox looked around the shuttle interior. He located Rendelac sitting on the top of some of his other possessions in the ship’s chair. He picked up the computer and twirled his pack onto his back.

“Sinking?”

“I was trying to rouse you from your slumber for two hours. The problem is now quite dire. Our elevation is gradually decreasing, and I fear that the remains of this vessel are submerging into the swamp.”

“You should have mentioned this sooner,” said Vox, jumping to one of the broken windows. The twisted trees and choked vegetation beyond sat in a stagnant sea of green. The incredible humidity and stench of decay was almost comfortable to Vox, and the gentle curve of the ship’s hull provided ample purchase for him to scramble up and out.

“I apologize,” said Rendelac. “You had other questions, and my programming dictated that I answer them, to a point.”

“How fortunate I am that the original Rendelac coded you to eventually concede the all-important etiquette for quick responses to danger.”

“The vessel would likely not have become truly dangerous for another twenty minutes.”

“Oh, I see. Why hurry at all then?”

“The swampy terrain beyond the vessel might have altered by our sinking, and as such-”

“That was sarcasm, Rendelac.”

“A sarcastic tongue is an exercise for a mind in disarray.”

“I am aware of the teachings,” said Vox. He stood upon the ship and scanned the horizon. He saw a tree-covered shoreline a mere dozen feet away, and some other fallen debris created a workable path back to the jungle for one of his skills. He carefully slid down the sloping edge of the vessel.

“Did Fletch happen to say why she barged through the jungles until she found a swamp just for dispatching me?”

“She was apparently very knowledgeable of the region. She knew this swamp would be here, and that it was the assumed final resting place of a vessel that had crashed when an adventurous entrepreneur crash-landed after an attempt to begin a logging and mining operation. He was desperate to leave after the locals realized the extent to which his presence would disrupt their environment, but did not begin flying away until after the Sthenites had time to sabotage his ship.”

“Sthenites,” said Vox, carefully hopping from the ship to a log wedged between the vessel and a small pile of rocks and silt. “I should have researched this world more, just as it appears that Fletch has… Sthenites are the creatures that resemble Terran serpents, but with feathers?”

“Yes,” said Rendelac. “You are aware of them?”

“The Rythnian Boutique had two as founding members,” said Vox. “After being abducted from their own world, they escaped on Veskid but found that they could do well for themselves. The poisons on Mandrake are second to none, and with the Desperate Measures Agency’s headquarters so near there was a high demand for their specialized knowledge.”

“A curious coincidence,” said Rendelac.

“A beneficial one,” said Vox, hopping to the rock pile and carefully gaging the leap to what looked like a relatively benign clump of a sargasso-like weed. “Their knowledge allowed me to find the Cerulean Bloom after we landed here.”

He landed on the clump of weeds and was at first relieved to find that the clump was thick and strong enough to support his weight, but some of the vines whipped around his leg.

“Ugh… alien plant life,” he said. He reached down and started untwisting the vine.

“The manner of that twist did not appear to be the result of locomotion on the plant’s part,” said Rendelac. “It almost appeared mechanical. Strange, considering that the plant appears capable of moving on its own, albeit in a different way.”

“A fluke of circumstance, then.”

A strange, high-pitched beep filled the air.

“Rendelac, was that you?”

“Negative. The noise issued from the vegetation currently entwined around your leg.”

Another beep sounded. Vox moved aside the vegetative clumps and took a sharp intake of breath at the appearance of a timer counting down seconds, affixed within the plant.

“Rendelac, what is-”

“Danger!” said Rendelac. “Possibility of an explosive device high!”

Vox stopped talking and started unfurling the vine. Obviously a trap left by Fletch to eliminate him from a distance if the murk didn’t finish him off sooner. With only a moment, he peeled the vine from his leg, jumped, and cursed as the vine reflexively twisted around his arm, pulling the explosive clump of vegetation along with him just a moment before it detonated.

Episode 111: Westminster Quarters

The alley was beautiful, dark and cold. Zack stepped through it and looked up at the sky. Stars shone overhead, glimmering with an immediacy that suggested an absence of atmosphere. It looked like the sky of a space station, one large enough to have a city. The alley was perfect, with just the right combination of narrowness and twistiness to be atmospheric but without the cramped quarters that Zack was familiar with from the many times he’d worked in alleys like these. His only complaint was that it was too clean. None of the grime from foot traffic, litter, or good old fashioned air pollution had settled into place, confirming Zack’s suspicion that he was on a space station.

“It isn’t fair to judge every warrior by the same rubric. The strength of some is speed, the strength of others is physicality, the strength of others lies in their venom. You are weaker than most Sthenite warriors, though surprisingly fast for a human. But is speed sufficient? What will your greatest challenge be? Can you clutch victory from death and defeat?”

“Who’s there?” said Zack, looking over his shoulder. The alley was darker now. A familiar set of four notes chimed through the air, notes he always associated with old clocks. He turned toward the voice, reaching into his green trench coat and drawing his Purcellian Striker Pistols.

“You’re sure about this alley, then?”

Zack passed a storefront and paused. Why was the storefront wrong? He looked at it, and saw an analog clock ticking away the seconds next to a digital clock that flashed 12:00:50. It wouldn’t be long until the analog clock caught up to the flashing time.

Another set of notes passed through the air, four notes that seemed to answer the first four. It was strange to hear a break between them. Were they part of the same notes playing, or was there just a delay?

Zack turned left, ignoring the store.

“You’re alone,” said the voice. “You have friends. Have they abandoned you? Betrayed you? Or have you finally reached a place where they can’t save you? Your strength lies in webs of community. Will you finally get in a problem so deep that not even the most generous friends will be able to help you in time? After all, they can’t be everywhere you are all the time. And what sort of stranger would help you out without even knowing who you are?”

Four more notes echoed through the alley.

“You’re not sayin’ anything I’ve not thought about before,” said Zack.

“Then why do you keep going into alleys? You know what they say about people in your kind of work and alleys.”

“Lotsa work to do,” said Zack. “Long way to go yet.”

“There are miles to go before you rest,” said the voice. “And you won’t be able to help everyone you try to help. How can you when you can’t help yourself?”

“Shut up.”

“Did you help Azar?”

Zack winced, and everything went dark.

“That’s incredible. I’ve never seen a mental block like that. I suppose it’s possible for one to form through your own willpower, but it’s unlikely. Do humans possess such technology?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Zack.

“Then tell me about Azar.”

“I don’t know WHO you’re talking about,” said Zack.

Why did the storefront open onto an alley? That was the problem.

Zack turned and walked back to the alley, finding it closer than he expected. The clocks were nearly at the same time. A final set of four notes chimed, finishing the musical phrase, just a few seconds before midnight.

“Midnight is different in your mind,” said the voice. “It’s the turning point of the day in Chala’s mind. But for you… why fifty seconds later?”

“Chimes don’t end at midnight,” said Zack. “They end after midnight. Thirty seconds, a minute maybe, but never right at midnight unless you change the chimes to start before midnight arrives. There’s a clock on Veskid that rings, used to listen to it all the time. I timed it out to fifty seconds. I should go to Earth some day, visit the original.”

The chimes started ringing, announcing the arrival of midnight. Zack opened the door of the store and stepped in.

“Wait, who are you?” said the voice.

“Zack. Or Tzak, if you need me to be a Sthenite.”

A doctor’s office was inside the store, looking out of place after the clocks he’d expected on the storefront. Zeta, the Doctor that helped the asteroid racing federation, waited behind a desk.

“Hello again, Tzak.”

“Hi,” said Zack. “I don’t know what’s happening.”

“I can’t help you,” said Zeta, shaking his head. “No appointment, and no medicine here. Should’ve taken a different route to find medicine.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” said the voice.

“I don’t know what’s happening, but I feel like this is where I should be,” said Zack.

“I’m sorry,” said the voice. “I don’t know why this… this has never happened before, you’re supposed to be alone.”

“I’m not alone,” said Zack.

“No, but I can’t help you,” said Zeta. “I have a little time before my next appointment though, I might be able to administer another brain scan.”

“I don’t need my head examined,” said Zack.

“Right there with ya,” said Nectra, leaning in to Zack’s field of vision from the side.

Something was wrong.

“You’re not here,” said Zack.

“Yes I am,” said Zeta. “Are you okay?”

“I hate to do this to you, this looks important,” said Nectra.

“Stop,” said the voice. “No one is supposed to interfere. This is delicate. It’s meant to be solitary.”

“Hey, you okay?” said Nectra. “Zack, your eyes are… and your voice is weird, too. Snap out of it, okay?”

“Nothing’s wrong with my voice?” asked Zack.

“If you say so,” said Nectra. “But I’ve waited too long. You’re comin’ with me.”

Nectra put her clawed hand on Zack’s arm and suddenly he was in the cave. The Overseer of the trials was gone, and there was no trace of an alley, clocks, or chimes.

“N-” he said, feeling very ill.

“I think the air’s a little weird down here,” said the shangmere, smiling. Zack took a slow step back, but Nectra yanked his arm forward and spun his wrist behind his back.

“This way,” said Nectra. “We’re gettin’ out of the crazy death cave. And then, once we’re both safe and sound away from the flying snake people, I can kill you.”

Episode 105: Cerulean Bloom

The yellow, saucer-shaped ship dipped into Mandrake’s atmosphere. Saucers had some advantages at incorporating stealthy technology and didn’t make people as naturally suspicious as the even stealthier “black triangle” ship design, and as such prospective smugglers both had more chances to purchase them from military surplus dealers and had more desire to modify them for their purposes. Re-entry fire was hard to avoid, but for those who cared enough and could invest in the right technologies it was possible for a skilled pilot to minimize it to almost nothing.

The Amber Sting spun and the lights surrounding its perimeter spiraled so that anyone with the right vantage point would see the dizzying, and by some reports nearly hypnotic, display as the energy from the propulsion systems transitioned to the hovering systems. The properly selected clearing, a small one laced with flowers around its edges, had its grass-like flora pressed in a circular form as the saucer rotated and stabilized. Slender legs unfolded and gracefully touched the ground before a sturdier protrusion began to lower. A staircase was revealed on the ramp, and an equally graceful figure began to descend. The back lighting gave Vox Cul-Dar a wonderful view of the clearing as he stepped out of the vessel and onto the surface of Mandrake.

“It’s more beautiful than I imagined,” he said, scanning over the environment with his large, oval eyes.

“I still don’t know why you picked this place,” said the captain, stepping down behind him. “A safer clearing less than two kilometers from here would have been just as easy to reach.”

“I am aware of that clearing, Earth man.”

“Hey, I was born on Veskid,” said the captain. “Earth’s not my home world.”

“My apologies,” said Vox. “I am aware of that clearing, human. I intend to visit it soon enough. This clearing needed to be my first stop, though, and as grateful as I am for your services I won’t pay the extra for a short hop through the jungle. I can handle myself that far, at least.”

“Suit yourself,” said the captain. “As a reminder, it may be a while before we can get to you. Against my better judgement as a low-life smuggler who’s more interested in money than in the well being of his passengers or cargo, I would ask you to please reconsider being dropped off here so that the Yellow Jackets may benefit from your business again in the future.”

“Your concern is noted and your offer declined,” said Vox. “Thank you for everything. When my business is concluded, I will attempt to request your services again. My hope is that this military action near Veskid won’t last more than a day.”

“Suit yourself,” said the captain. “Don’t get killed out here. The first explorers didn’t name it Mandrake for nothing.”

Vox raised his hand in farewell, and the captain turned to walk back up to the stairs, shielding his eyes from the disorientingly bright light. He hoped that the Yellow Jackets would fix that light before they returned to pick him up.

The ship reactivated its hover systems as the ramp began to lift back into the saucer. The legs slowly folded up as the Amber Sting began to spin. Vox removed his backpack and set it on the ground, not even watching as the ship lifted above the trees and zipped away. It never occurred to him that the ship might go elsewhere on the same planet.

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac as Vox lifted the computer’s slender black frame out of his pack, “I have finished your calculations and am ready to assist, though would again ask you to consider other ways.”

“Thank you, Rendelac,” said Vox, carrying the computer to the flowers at the edge of clearing. “And thank you also for arranging for the delivery at the star port. All of the ingredients from the catalog arrived, and now we only need the final ingredient. This poetry requires only two more lines.”

“There is no poetry in this, Vox Cul-Dar.”

“I would think that a computer would have a marvelous grasp of the beauty of mathematical progression. Half an hour, one third of an hour, one fourth of an hour…”

“I am familiar with the pattern that has obsessed you since we left Helix,” said Rendelac. “I will perform my duty and locate the flower you need, and in truth it is already located. I ask that you not dwell on the grisly details of your poison any further.”

“The details are already playing out,” said Vox. “Poisoning Gamma will merely be the nail in the coffin to this chain of events.”

“We know of no details playing out, and that destiny has not yet been etched in stone,” said Rendelac. “Gamma’s fate need not be a grim one.”

“If not me, then someone else,” said Vox. “No one escapes the Desperate Measures Agency, especially not one of its own employees.”

“Gamma has,” said Rendelac. “The bounty may exist, but if you simply stop pursuing him, all evidence suggests that he may live out a full life of simple obscurity.”

“A life hiding in shadows is not a life to support, Rendelac. One cannot properly live under those conditions.”

“Nor can one properly live under yours,” said Rendelac. “The blue flower amid the green ones, sixty degrees to your right is the blossom you seek. Do not touch the green flowers, for they will attack you with thorns if you so much as brush against them.”

“Thank you,” said Vox. “Once this business is behind us, we will never need to stoop to these measures again, Rendelac. We will simply deliver Zack to his destiny of dying alone in some back alley… or in some copse of trees as the case may be… and retire to a life free from strife.”

The flower was large, almost as large as one of Vox’s hands, and had glistening sparkles in its cerulean coloration that set it apart from the maw-shaped green flowers that surrounded it. It was not poisonous on its own, but the Rythnian Boutique explained how, when mixed with certain other exotic materials that it sold, the flower could become the secret ingredient to one of the most insidious poisons ever discovered.

“Money does not bring peace, Vox Cul-Dar.”

“No, but it can rent a great deal of stability,” said Vox. He leaned forward and very gently pinched the blue flower between his fingers before severing its stem with the serrated blades of his arm.

Episode 52: The Role of Rendelac

Poisons were marvelous things, though Vox Cul-Dar rarely felt that they were worth his time. Usually, in his line of work, targets wouldn’t be observable long enough for covert poisoning, and a direct confrontation with most enemies would end with them dead or incapacitated thanks to the fragility of standard humans or other martially untrained people. But Zack was different.

Vox scrolled through the list of poisons on his computer screen, and could understand why some assassins learned to love the stealthy approach. This one would kill in precisely a week (for a human male of exactly two-hundred pounds) with no other ill effects. That one could kill haukreen in a matter of seconds. Another would give a minor cough to the Lotus Brides of Cresh before making them burst into flames one day later, something that looked terrible but reportedly caused death instantly.

“The Rythnian Boutique’s catalog is a fascinating read, Rendelac,” he said. “The DMA discount almost makes access to it reasonable.”

Rendelac’s eye changed hue to indicate that it registered the comment, but the computer had nothing to add, instead busying itself with the tiny details of ensuring that Vox’s home was running optimally. It was also in the midst of synchronizing with the true Rendelac on Vox’s home world, channeling sage wisdom through the interplanetary communications grid, a process that always left it feeling contemplative. There was much it wished to discuss with Vox, but it was waiting for a more appropriate time as per its courtesy protocols.

“These fast acting ones may be more like what I need,” said Vox. “Instant feelings of vertigo, kills in half an hour. Powerful lethargy and euphoria, kills in one third of an hour. Disturbing visions of terror, kills in one fourth of an hour. I like the progression.”

Vox’s phrases had, at last, surpassed the procedurally generated decency threshold that Rendelac had established for this conversation.

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “I fear you are growing obsessed.”

“The price on Gamma’s head is a mighty one,” said Vox. “If I don’t claim it, someone else will. I know you don’t approve of this work, Rendelac, but it’s going to be done and someone will profit for it.”

“And if Gamma eludes you?”

“No one escapes the Desperate Measures Agency forever,” said Vox.

“No one has yet,” said Rendelac. “In fact, Zack Gamma has already survived longer than anyone else who has been declared dead by the DMA. Perhaps Zack Gamma will be the first.”

“Not likely,” said Vox.

“Neither is the scene before me,” said Rendelac. “You pursued great wisdom once. Now you invest resources into learning the finer points of murder.”

“Can you honestly tell me that this isn’t fascinating?” said Vox. “The one that causes sensations of vertigo actually changes the sense of scale by making the target psychically aware of the entirety of space in their immediate area. The disturbing visions of terror come by linking the mind to actual scenes of suffering happening within three light years, they claim. …though that doesn’t seem likely to me, I thought that psychic energy was still limited to light speed? Ooh, and the next poison in the list…”

“Do you truly wish to cause such extra suffering for your former fellow coworker?”

“Of course not,” said Vox. “I wanted him dead when I first tracked him down in Helix. Quickly. But Zack has… comrades.”

“This displeases you?”

“I’ve seen his life, and his profession,” said Vox. “People like him are doomed to die alone in a back alley, without the rest of the world noticing or caring. It’s a social contract for people who deal in secrets as he does. It’s the system we work with.”

“It seems foolish to support such a system instead of taking steps to end it,” said Rendelac.

“I don’t see you trying to help him,” said Vox.

“It is the role of Rendelac to advise,” said Rendelac. “I advise you, just as the true Rendelac advises your home world. I do not take steps to hinder you, but I will implore you to listen to reason.”

“I have listened to your reason,” said Vox. “And today, I find it lacking. I’m sorry.”

A tense silence filled the room. Vox came near to breaking it, but was beaten by the computer.

“And now we come to the second role of Rendelac,” it said.

“I am sorry,” said Vox. “I really am. Tell me, do I have any mail or notifications?”

“Yes,” said Rendelac. “A notification from the Helix police department, reminding you to report the return of stolen items, likely referring to Officer Tacara’s discovery that we still had our identification node.”

“I swear, if I ever find that crinlian again…”

“I urge you not to pursue him as you now pursue Zack Gamma,” said Rendelac. “Allow one of these fixations to die this night if you will not allow it for both.”

Vox glared at the eye on Rendelac’s frame before turning back to the catalog of poisons.