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Episode 46: Service Entrance

Zack rounded the corner with Hobbar close behind. Chip trailed sluggishly, not used to keeping up with as much activity as the other two.

“We’ve not seen anyone in minutes,” Chip panted. “There’s no one after us! Let’s… let’s take a break here.”

“Not a chance,” said Zack, nearing the next door in the hallway. “Based on the kinds of rooms we’re seeing, this is a standard service floor. Now, the architecture here’s the sort that might send a city planner to the funny farm, but layouts like this tend to have extra exits for service staff, even if we’ll have to climb stairs to find them. Chefs, janitors, maintenance crew, and all the people who’ve got the jobs that keep things running smoothly. And while Murk’s definitely repurposed this building, the whole place is too clean. There’s another way in down here, and we’re getting close to it.”

Zack reached for the door, but it opened before he touched it, pulled inward by someone on the other side. Vox Cul-Dar, looking as if he’d strangled so many guards that his heart simply wasn’t in it anymore, appeared behind the door and froze at the sight of Zack Gamma.

“You?” said Vox.

“Vox!” said Zack.

“Vox?” said Hobbar.

“You!” shouted Vox, seeing Hobbar. The Crinlian took a step back, as Vox’s normally highly ordered mind spun into overdrive. When he’d first come to Murk’s headquarters, his priority had been tracking down a lead on the Phantom Matador. But after a slow and, frankly, aggravating trek through the service entrance’s security team, seeing the bounty he wanted to catch the most and the child he wanted vengeance on the most at the same time caused his mind to experience something not unlike whiplash.

He jumped at Zack, but had wasted just enough time in the shock to see the investigator draw and aim one of his Purcellian striker pistols. Vox slowed and entered a defensive stance, but Chip ran, shoulder first, into Zack, sending them both onto the ground. The gun that Zack had been carrying launched itself from his hands and slid across the floor, coming to a rest at Vox’s feet. Vox looked at the weapon, then at the man who was struggling to keep Zack pinned to the floor.

“Thank you for the assistance,” said Vox. “I don’t plan on sharing the bounty, though.”

“Don’t turn him in to the DMA,” said Chip. “Turn him in to Murk.”

“Now why would I do that?” asked Vox. Hobbar managed to inch away for a moment before Vox spotted him, glared, and willed the Crinlian to halt.

“Murk’s favors are valuable,” said Chip. “Think of what having him as an ally might bring. He’s eager to see Zack dead at his hands rather than someone else’s.”

“I doubt that Murk’s favor would be as valuable as what I’ll collect with my original plan,” said Vox. “I also don’t know why Zack is wanted by the DMA. If a higher-up has wrath equal to Murk’s but the resources of the entire agency, then I think I know who I’m working for. Now… get off my quarry.”

Zack looked up into the eyes of Vox Cul-Dar. He wasn’t in a position to run, fight, or bargain. It was the end of the line.


Much earlier, on another world…

Sister Barris waved Azar into the small room, and motioned for him to sit at the table. Azar sat, feeling wary and trapped. The Order of Fierce Mercy had safehouses, an assumption built from the knowledge that their clients might not be able to find legal counsel because their position was too dangerous for their location to be known to the public. Azar had grudgingly agreed to the process but had resented it.

“It’s not right,” he said. “I’m supposed to be getting a new home and retiring comfortably, not on the run in back alleys and secret buildings.”

“I know,” said Sister Barris. “It’s just until the trial, though. Once you’re passed the trial, and once the verdict comes down in your favor, this will all be over.”

“They’re looking for me,” said Azar. “I can feel it.”

“We all can,” said Barris. “They’re afraid that they’ll be losing it all. And while they don’t know where you are yet, they’re looking. That’s why we’re here.”

“Do you think we can trust anyone else in this situation?”

“Yes,” said Barris. “It may be true that everyone in this line of work has a history… just as it’s true that everyone has a history… but I think he’s the best bet you’ve got. Bristlecorp may find our safehouses, but they’ll never find the ones he’s set up.”

The door on the opposite side of the room swung open, and the agency representative entered, tossing a clipboard onto the table before sitting across from Azar. The man looked haggard, spindly, and confident, even if overworked. It was the look of a man who did exhausting work, but made sure it was done right. Azar recognized the look from his own mirror. The man doffed his hat and tossed it into the chair next to the one he’d selected for himself.

“Azar?” said the man. “Good to meet you. I’m Gamma, Zachary Gamma. Sister Barris tells me that you’ve hit some desperate times, and that’s exactly when our company can step in to help people like you.”

“Thank you,” said Azar. “I’m still not sure what you can do that isn’t already being done, though.”

“Let me worry about that,” said Zack. “I’ll be honest, I’ve never had a client in quite your position… I don’t think anyone in history’s been in exactly what you’re experiencing… but my job’s going to be all about finding exactly what it’ll take to see you get to your trial date in one piece. Nothing’s gonna take you out of the picture while I’m around, and I expect to be around for a long, long time.”


Episode 34: Changing Plans

“I told your computer to cancel your order to send people after Carmen!” shouted Zack.

“I must’ve forgotten to make sure that the computer listened to you,” said Chip, inching back into his chair. “I didn’t have time to approve your voice for administrative access on my computer, so it wouldn’t happen automatically. Plus I had your home invasion on my mind.”

“Don’t get cute with me, you conniving… creep! You think you can get away with this?”

“I made sure to get a good look at your record with the DMA when Murk got his pseudohands on you,” said Chip. “You’ve never taken anything close to an assassination job. Murk, meanwhile, has more than a little blood on his hands. Which of you am I more likely to survive by backstabbing? If I don’t take my chances to help Murk out, then just getting out of Helix won’t help me. Getting off the planet might not either.”

Zack lunged forward to grab Chip by the shirt, but was stopped midway by a strong, very warm hand clamping down on his shoulder.

“Calm down,” said Igneous.

“This snake just sold us out!”

“He’s trying to survive,” said Igneous. “Don’t judge him for trying to survive, human. It takes energy, and while you might have it to spare I can’t spare the extra exertion wrangling you. Now, I’m getting the sense that you know Carmen Shift… are we honestly talking about the racer?”

“Everyone’s talking about that racer today,” said Hobbar, keeping his eyes on the road as he drove the van.

“Yes,” said Zack, ignoring the Crinlian’s comment.

“You have strange friends,” said Igneous. “This hacker you tracked down sent the order to find the racer, probably because he knew you’d get mad.”

“Of course I’m mad,” said Zack. “I was finally almost out of this run-down tower that time forgot, and now I’ve gotta stay here even longer!”

“You were already going to stay,” said Igneous. “You needed to get your identification, your weaponry, and your money. If you’re angry about it, you’ll make mistakes. Murk won’t waste time throwing you into his simulated jungle if he catches you again. I still say that the best course of action is leaving town, but if you insist on doing this then at least be smart about it.”

“Right,” said Zack. “Right.”

“Being smart about it would be listening to the lady and getting out of Helix, if you want my opinion,” said Hobbar.

“Quiet,” said Zack. “Chip, you’ve got a lot to tell me and not much time before the goblin in the driver’s seat reaches our destination. Talk.”


Jen stepped from the stairwell to the lower hallway where Murk kept his prisoners. Rillem stood outside Carmen’s door, occasionally tapping controls on the security panel on the opposite wall. He nodded as she drew near.

“How’s she settling in?” Jen asked.

“She’s calmed down now,” said Rillem, looking at the security monitor. “She woke up in there and went kind of crazy. Pounded on the door for the better part of an hour, shouting all kinds of crazy things about the Desperate Measures Agency, her asteroid races, and Helix in general. Now she’s just glaring at the door. How’d it go with the cab?”

“No problems there,” she said. “The hangar guard’ll look the other way for the right price when its not my shift, but I didn’t even see him. Probably asleep at his desk. Any word on why Murk wants her to stay in town yet?”

“No, and I don’t like it. We’ve never gone this long without instruction, or at least explanation. I’ve called to see what I can find out, but Murk’s apparently busy and not to be interrupted, and no one’s heard about this order yet.”

“Best to just wait, then,” said Jen. “How’s the other… is he a prisoner? How’s the other prisoner?”

“Stable,” said Rillem. “All readings are normal, no indications of his voice. If he keeps his schedule, he’ll talk again in about an hour. I’ve not even looked at his camera yet, the guy freaks me out.”

“Yeah… he’s something else. Is that normal for Pyrhians?”

“I don’t think so, but I’ve mostly only met the rocky ones. And Murk, of course, but they say that he’s a bit weird too. More… ‘inky’ than most. Of course, ‘normal’ may be hard to pin down for them with Xol on the horizon.”

Jen looked skeptical and started to reply but a rapid pounding sounded from the other side of Carmen’s door. Rillem rolled his eyes.

“Great,” he said. “I think she heard us. We really need to soundproof more than just one of these things.”

Jen walked to the door and slid a metal panel at eye level to the side, giving her a full view of the cell. Carmen stopped hammering the door and glared through the panel.

“You!” she shouted. “Let me outta here!”

“Not enjoying the scenic route?” asked Jen.

“Not as much as I’m going to enjoy getting out of it. Thanks for getting that panel open for me, I think it’s locked from this side.”

“It is,” said Jen. “Anyway, calm down. We’ve all got a long wait, and banging on doors won’t change that.”

“Maybe not,” said Carmen, looking through the window. She nodded at Rillem who awkwardly waved back. “Fancy panel there. You’d think something like that would scan for weapons.”

“It does,” said Jen. She turned back to Rillem. “Right?”

“Right. She’s clean.”

“Ah, I get it,” said Carmen. “You know, in the Penumbra League there was always a little risk that a rival team might try to get the jump on us, or the cops might try to get us on some technicality. It’s good to always carry a few extras that scanners won’t pick up.”

Carmen reached into her pocket and pulled out three small stones. Jen quickly tried to shut the window as Carmen tossed the rocks toward her. One rock made it through, slamming into Jen’s hand as the others clattered into the metal door.

The rock hit the floor and Jen cradled her hand. Rillem watched, stunned. Jen glared at him.

“You didn’t check to see if she had rocks with her?”

“The scanner normally picks up weapons!” he said. “You know, guns, knives, that kind of thing.”

“You just trust the scanner?” she said. “You didn’t even check her pockets?”

“Hey, sorry,” he said. “Look, it’s fine now. No harm done.”

“Did you not see the rock hitting my hand? Harm’s done!”

“Right,” he said. “Look, we’ve got a medkit, we should at least be able to dull the pain a bit.”

“Oh, you’d better hope so,” said Jen. “Where is it?”

“End of the hall, right this way.”

Jen and Rillem turned from the door and began approaching the medkit. Midway there, Rillem stopped.

“Wait!” he shouted, turning around.

“What?” Jen asked, looking back. She gasped at the sight of the rock that hit her hand rising into the air before it propelled itself into the security panel.