Tag Archives: pulp scifi

Episode 47: The Helix Double-Cross

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

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

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

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

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

Vox smirked.

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

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

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

“You know that’s a lie,” said Zack.

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

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

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

“Now, Zack…” Vox started.

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

“Is he dead?”

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

“Did you want to?” asked Hobbar.

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

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

“Great,” said Zack. “Lead the way.”

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

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

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

“Where are you going?” asked Chip.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is there a hot tub in the van?”

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

“And it’s got Igneous in it.”

“Igneous?” asked Carmen.

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

Carmen nodded. Hobbar returned, grinning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Greater wisdom may be yours if-”

“Quiet!” said Vox.

“Your car has been-”

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he steal something else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

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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 36: Call from the Cloud

The Cypulchral Cloud loomed on the vidscreen, like a purple and grey wall of fog. It had a definite outer border, but tendrils of the cloud extended beyond its perimiter. Apart from its strange density, it didn’t seem all that special to Captain Ortega. He’d seen many nebulae in his time, most of them larger. Captain Calen and Ensign Trell, on the other hand, were staring at the cloud with a sense of trepidation that he hadn’t seen on either of them before.

As they neared, the cloud filled more and more of the viewscreen until it was all that could be seen. Ortega thought he detected the faintest hint of pixelation on the screen, but it left before he could put his finger on exactly what had changed.

“We’re hitting the first stages of the cloud now,” said Ensign Trell. “Motes of dust, and initial electromagnetic interference detected.”

“Will the scanners even be worth it in there?” asked Ortega.

“If the tales hold true, they won’t hurt,” said Calen. “The weird and uncatalogued energies within the Cypulchral Cloud will interfere with scanners, but won’t disable them. I’ll take a fighting chance to see any dangers before they come my way.”

“Captain, it may be worth our time to disable certain features of our computers,” said Trell. “If the reports can be trusted, the cloud’s ability to upload corrupted data can do serious damage to some systems. If we encounter the Soul Survivor it may also help us to prevent him from uploading his mind into our ship again.”

“Excellent plan, Ensign,” said Calen. “He took my ship before, but I’ll see him frozen in hydrofire before he does it again!”

“You mentioned drifting pieces of scrap before,” said Ortega. “Do you have any plans for avoiding them if our sensors go down?”

“Not one,” said Calen. “If I’m fast enough on the controls I’ll be able to bob and weave away at the first sign of trouble, but not before we take a few bruises.”

Ortega nodded. If not for the potential risk from Doctor Rogers, he would concede that the cloud wasn’t worth exploring. Even without the ghost stories that surrounded it, the Cypulchral Cloud’s hazards would warrant a ship more specially designed than the scuttler.

“Having second thoughts?”

Ortega looked at Trell. She’d caught him staring through the viewscreen, and likely had a good grasp on his feelings.

“Always,” he said. “A part of me is worried that Doctor Rogers knows nothing about this place. He might just be running here as a convenient hiding place.”

“Too late to back down now,” said Trell.

“Why?”

“Because we’re here,” said Trell. “Only cowards turn back from an engagement once the course is set. We’ve not even encountered any dangers that would warrant a tactical reevaluation.”

A chime sounded. Captain Calen snapped out of her studious examination of the viewscreen and Trell turned back to her station, looking nervous.

“What’s that?” asked Ortega.

“We’re being hailed,” said Calen. “Normally we automatically receive them and log the messages.”

“I removed our regular acceptance of hailing frequencies when I disabled some of the computer’s functions,” said Trell. “I didn’t want to take any chances with any features that allow external sources to automatically do things to our computers.”

“Should we answer?” asked Ortega.

“It would be safe normally,” said Calen. “But it’s also exactly the kind of thing that wouldn’t be safe in the old stories about this place.”

The chime sounded again. Ortega turned to look at the impending wall of purple mist and vapor. It didn’t look dangerous yet.

“I don’t see any ships that could be sending a hailing frequency,” said Ortega.

“There are none in the range of the scanners,” said Trell. “The scanners don’t penetrate the cloud, though. Neither do our eyes. A powerful transmitter from just inside the cloud could be hailing us.”

“Could we locate the source of the signal before accessing it?”

“Ordinarily, yes,” said Trell. “But not now. The amount of interference we’re receiving is already playing havoc with some of the data that our sensors are picking up. It might be safe to open the message and see what it says. If we’re lucky, we could close the signal if it appears to be nothing but a jumbled message.”

“Is it safe to do that?” asked Ortega.

“No,” said Trell. “Any exposure could potentially work faster than I could keep up with.”

“There’s one other factor we need to consider,” said Calen.

“And that is?” asked Ortega.

“It could be a distress call. I know we’re all thinking it… it’s the most likely reason to hail a ship out here. We can’t let our fear of what it might be keep us from answering it as we usually would. Trell, prepare to instantly close the message if it’s nothing but garbage. Ortega… if we’re lucky, this is The Soul Survivor realizing he’s made a terrible mistake and trying to find a quick rescue.”

“I doubt that,” said Ortega.

“As do I,” said Calen. “Regardless, it’s a risk we have to take. Trell, open the channel.”

Ensign Trell nodded and activated the communications array. Moments later a man’s voice rang through the bridge.

“-ease respond. To any ship in range, we need assistance. This is a repeating message. Please, respond. To any ship in range, we need assistance. This is a repeating message. Please, respond.”

Trell looked to Captain Calen as the message continued to loop. Calen nodded and Trell entered a command. Seconds later, the message broke off and the same voice, speaking in real time, came over the loudspeaker.

“Are you a rescue vessel? Really a rescue vessel?”

“Yes,” said Calen. “We’ve heard your distress call and can lend assistance if-”

“I’m transmitting my best guess as to coordinates,” said the voice. “I worked them out beforehand, they’re attached to the carrier as a secondary signal. The moment you have them, you need to cut transmission!”

“Why?” asked Captain Ortega.

“Because the signal will find you,” said the voice. “Assuming it hasn’t found you already.”

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.

Episode 31: The Frozen Goblet

“Any luck yet?”

Captain Ortega had been pacing near Ensign Trell’s workstation for the better part of the last hour. He’d been trying not to hover, but the ship was too small for him to stay far away. He knew that he could get restless when he didn’t have much to contribute to tense situations, so he’d tried to limit himself. Trell had been patient so far, but it was obvious by the way she glared at the screen that she was getting frustrated.

“No,” she said. “Reconstructing everything he did is challenging. He worked around the software some of the time that his mind was within our equipment. Usually the ship can create a simple log of everything it does, but that’s a function of the software itself and not something that gets recorded when the hardware is acting on its own. Or… at his direction. Whatever your great enemy is, he was acting as a secondary control program while he was outside of his own body. Without a log, I have to reconstruct all the possible changes. The only clues I have are our own location, speed, and the entry from when he returned to his own body to leave through the airlock. I’m close to figuring out where he escaped, but there are still a lot of variables to sift through.”

“Right,” said Ortega. “Sorry to trouble you.”

Trell nodded and continued working. She hadn’t even looked up from the screen. Andrew backed away quietly.

“Stop pestering my crew,” said Captain Calen, rising from her chair on the bridge. “Trell will give us updates as soon as she has them. We’ll find your terrible foe, but we’ll do so on our time. Now, join me in the dining hall.”

“I’m not very hungry.”

“That’s not a request, Ortega,” said Calen. “Don’t forget that you’re my prisoner here. I don’t have to confine you to the cell while you’re well behaved, but right now you’re bothering Trell while she plies her essential trade, and I won’t have you marring her exemplary work. Over to the dining hall before you feel the wrath of my Maelstrom Ray!”

Ortega knew that Calen was joking, but there was a frightening sincerity in her eyes when she spoke. He’d heard it said that Morcalans loved metaphor and hyperbole so much that it didn’t take much goading to turn such statements into reality, and he could believe it based on the short time he’d spent with Calen and Trell.

A short walk later, he and Calen entered the tiny dining room that was generously called a “hall.” Calen entered a security code and opened what appeared to be a refrigerated safe. She removed two slender glasses and a dark green bottle from within. As she poured the chilled drink into the glasses, Ortega got a look into the safe and nearly gasped. In the back of the chilled vault was a goblet of a dull yellow color that was studded with jewels. In another context it might seem gaudy, but something about its position in the back of a box with a layer of frost gave it an allure that he couldn’t quite express. Calen obstructed his view of the goblet when she returned the bottle, and removed it from sight entirely when she closed and locked the safe. She sat on one side of the hall’s small table and waved for Ortega to sit at the other.

“Let’s see if the Astroguard’s finest prepares their palates for true challenges. Spinewaster Ale, strong even by Morcalan standards.”

“Spinewaster?”

“Named for the Spinewaster province,” said Calen, sniffing the beverage in her glass. “A region conquered over two centuries ago through a particularly violent method of assassinations. They say that the spine-tingling sensation it provides is a happy coincidence, but I’ve always wondered if the for-hire murderers of the region didn’t repurpose their poisonmaking prowess for mixological amusements. I don’t believe that it’s truly an ale, but that’s a minor failing for a mighty drink.”

“It must be good to foster a local legend that way,” said Ortega. “It would make people doubt the rumor just enough to purchase it.”

“On any other world, I might agree with you,” said Calen. “For Morcalans, boasting that we drink even the poison that slays our enemies would be a stronger selling point. There is just enough dishonor in such history to make it possible, if the original brewer was as meek as an offworlder.”

Ortega raised an eyebrow.

“My apologies,” said Calen. “Come. Be this poison or brew, let us enjoy it now. Between Emperor Dyson and The Soul Survivor, we may never enjoy another drink again.”

Calen enthusiastically drained her glass. Ortega drank a modest amount, but stopped moments after the first gulp. A shooting sensation, not unlike pain, ran up his back. He had expected a tingling shake, possibly a tickle. Instead, he was reminded of a time when he’d been attacked by a driftmaw jellyfish. The poison kept him out of duty for the better part of a month. The beverage didn’t actually hurt, and it didn’t come with the fevered hallucinations, but the sensation was so similar to the initial sting that he shuddered involuntarily. Calen laughed raucously as he stared at the drink in shock.

“Now you’ve had a real drink, Captain,” she said, raising her glass in salute. “I won’t think less of you for not finishing it.”

“No?”

“You’re not Morcalan,” she said. “The bar starts low. I grow weary of how softly most off-worlders need to be treated. You can at least keep up. That may not be the strongest drink I could have offered you, but it’s not a tame one, either.”

“Even so, I’ll see if I can finish it off,” said Ortega. “Though I doubt I’ll ever try it again.”

“Likely not,” said Calen. “Even on my world it’s rare. I received that bottle for rescuing cargo from pirates. The rightful owners were rich and grateful, and could spare it. I try to only crack it open on special occasions, such as our imminent demise. Just another treasure for the collection.”

“You do seem to have an eye for value.”

“I appreciate craftsmanship and practicality. Everyone does. I just know that it’s worth holding on to.”

“Where did you get the fancy goblet in the refrigerator, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Calen paused and poured more of the Spinewaster Ale into her glass. She considered the drink.

“That was originally in the storehouses of the Quicksilver Prince, the war merchant who laid seige to the moons of Zorminten. I lead the assault that broke his embargo. I forced my way through the command ship’s walls. I rescued the Zorminten Council of Rulers, and returned each to their moon. And when it was time to face certain death at his hand to spare the lives of two of those worlds, I conquered his lair, escaped his Neon Menagerie, and sabotaged his teleportation chamber when he knew that the day was no longer his. We dueled then in single combat. I won’t bore you with that story since it should be obvious which of the two of us died. Victory was mine that day, at greater cost than I care to say. His riches were mine to plunder. From everything that I beheld of his riches, I chose only the goblet.”

“Did he have nothing else you valued?”

“Everything he had was something of value. The goblet was the only thing of worth. That precious chalice will serve me well the day I become an admiral. Should I take a husband, that is the glass that I will use when I make the first toast in his honor. When I die, my ashes will fill that goblet, so that some will be cast to the sea and the rest will be launched to the stars. I don’t know the details of my life yet, captain, but that goblet will guide me through some important moments.”

“Not just any glass would do, then.”

“Of course not,” said Calen. “Why should I settle for anything less than the best?”

“It seems strange to me to define the rest of your life by a piece of treasure you found.”

“Not the rest of my life, Ortega. Just a few moments that became clearer the moment I claimed the goblet as my own. Did you not get an immediate sense of your future, your changing destiny, as soon as you first became a captain?”

“Yes, but I became a captain during a field promotion when everyone in my squad was being taken out by a giant insect living in a newly settled mining colony,” said Ortega. “I knew my destiny was to either play the part well, or die trying.”

“There may be hope for you yet, then,” said Calen, leaning back in her chair and raising her glass of Spinewaster Ale. “Dangers are meant to be experienced, and fears are just challenges for accepting.”

Ortega didn’t think he agreed with that sentiment, but as Calen drained the rest of her glass he thought he could imagine why the Morcalans would see it that way. Trell leaned in from the hallway, looking grim.

“I’ve found him, Captain,” she said. “The Soul Survivor’s escape trajectory is mapped with eighty percent certainty, assuming he’s not content to drift forever in hard vacuum.”

“Wonderful!” shouted Calen. “Let’s not waste any time in finding this monster, and destroying him once and for all for what he did to my ship.”

“You should know that his trajectory sends him through the Cypulchral Cloud.”

The room suddenly felt emptier. A look of concern crossed Captain Calen’s face, a look that seemed out of place based on what Ortega had seen before. Her normally boisterous, borderline violent mood seemed to have receded, like a monstrous and happy crustacean pulling into its shell when a more dangerous creature drew near.

“I have wonderful news, Ortega,” said Calen. “Your great enemy has perished. And if he hasn’t, then he’s no longer someplace that I’m willing to follow.”

Episode 20: Awake at Alpha Street

Carmen opened her eyes, slowly working through a dull throbbing in her skull. It was unpleasant, but she’d had worse hangovers in recent memory and was able to slowly push her way through it. The light wasn’t causing her headache to get worse, fortunately.

She was sitting on an uncomfortable rolling chair in what looked like an empty hangar. She shakily got to her feet, causing the chair’s wheels to emit a loud squeak. She winced at the noise and decided that she should give herself a few minutes to let her mind get back on track.

The environment was eerie and still. The lack of a ship or car in the small hangar gave it the expectant emptiness of deprived purpose while the lack of dust or disrepair made her feel like someone might walk in at any moment and ask why she was there. She wasn’t exactly sure why.

She approached the exit, opened the door, and gave her eyes a few moments to adjust to the (fortunately not too painful) brighter light outside. She saw an upscale, though old fashioned, walkway along a street. Her side of the street had small hangar spaces, while the opposite side featured signs that advertised restaurants or small gift shops. A holographic sign floated nearby, saying that this was Alpha Street.

Carmen remembered Helix, Zack’s checkup gone wrong, the failed attempt to fly away, and the elevator. She ran back into the hangar to look for any sign of Zack, but the space was empty except for the unpleasant chair. She found the hangar’s control panel in the wall by the door, and opened the only other exit to the room, the massive gate that allowed cars or small ships in or out.

The gate opened onto a scenic view of the nearby Veskid City at dusk. Carmen had hoped that there would be a lengthy flight tunnel which might contain a maintenance door, or something that would indicate a direction that she could look for Zack, but the drop from the hangar gate was instantaneous, blocked only by the faint blue hint of the energy field that prevented strong winds from blowing in.

She ran back out and saw Alpha Street. Zack was missing. If they’d been lied to, if Gamma had just been abducted by the DMA then he was already dead. If they hadn’t been lied to, Zack might still be somewhere in Helix. Someone didn’t want her to know where Zack was, though. She needed to find out why, and to find out where Zack went.

More importantly, she needed to figure out where to even begin looking.
***
“Wake up, Mister Gamma.”

Zack’s head pounded. He wasn’t sure who was speaking to him, or why the speaker’s voice wavered and rippled so much, but the the soothing tone didn’t do anything to make his head hurt less. A few more minutes would be perfect.

“I know you can hear me, Gamma. The poison’s effect does not last this long. I can understand a desire to sleep longer with the days you’ve been having recently, but we don’t truly have time for you to recuperate. At least, you don’t.”

Zack managed to get an eye open. He automatically went through the motion of rolling out of a bed, but found himself restrained. He thought more about where he was, and realized he was in a chair. In a very dark room.

Everything rushed back to him. So he’d been caught by the DMA after all. The people in the elevator had lied to him. The single light in the center of the room cast shadows that obscured the room’s edges, including the desk in front of him. He focused his eyes and saw a silhouette behind the desk.

“Who are you? Where’s Carmen?”

“Don’t concern yourself with Miss Shift… she’s been released into Helix, as missing celebrities bring more unwanted attention than missing detectives, especially with her impending races and your socially accepted fate of dying alone in a back alley. But your ignorance wounds me, Zack. After all that time we spent together, I would think my voice alone would give me away.”

“Good point. You sound like someone fitted for a pair of cement shoes who got dropped off in a wishing well. Not exactly the sort of voice you forget.”

“I see. Your predictable view of the people around you continues to be as out of date as your hat.”

“My hat’s fantastic,” said Zack. “Just wait for forest green to come back in style again, and another five years or so’ll make this look a classic. Just you wait and see.”

“Aheh… yes, I will. A pity that you won’t be around to benefit from such a poor choice in fedora. You may not remember me, but I can assure you that this last meeting of ours will be the final thing you ever remember.”

Zack searched his mind for any memory of this person. Perhaps they worked in a different department? One he’d worked with when he first joined, but not since?

“Look, if you want the DMA bounty, just finish me off and claim it. Congrats. You beat Fletch, and that’s saying something. She practically had me earlier today.”

“Oh? I hadn’t heard that the greatest assassin of the Desperate Measures Agency was in Helix. That’s… distressing on some level. Regardless, I do take pleasure in being the one to see you breathe your last, but I’m not with your beloved agency of thieves and murderers. Your death will be personal.”

“Okay, I give up. Who are you? If you don’t want the bounty, and you’re not a member of the DMA, then why do you want me dead?”

“This borders on insulting,” said the shadow. It stepped forward, though “stepped” was hardly the correct word. Its form seemed to flow and surge, most of its mass gently rolling over the desk while the remainder slid beneath, both portions merging with each other as the entity drew nearer.

Zack convulsed at the sight, even though it told him that the creature was liquid or colloidal in some form. He guessed Pyrhian even before he could see the creature properly in the light. It was dark blue, darker than most Pyrhian water people. There seemed to be an inky quality deep within it. It chose a human-like face with two arms and three pillar-like legs, likely to give it extra stability if needed. Zack exhaled once the creature was fully visible.

“That’s surprising,” said Zack. “I wasn’t expecting… anything like that.”

“I’m sure you recognize me now?”

Zack looked over the creature, baffled.

“No,” he said. “No, I’m sorry. Look, you’re… obviously a very memorable person. At least, for a human you would be. Pyrhians aren’t exactly common. Did I know you before your condensation? If I saw you premetamorphosis then maybe that’s why I don’t recognize you.”

“No,” said the creature, stepping forward. It covered ground quickly, with its three, loping legs stretching to cross the small distance with alarming speed. “We met when I was like this. We met, and after what you did I made sure that you would remember to stay away from me. I warned you not to come to Helix ever again. And you didn’t listen.”

“Buddy, I think you’ve got the wrong guy,” said Zack. “I’ve never seen you before in my life. I’ve never heard your voice before. I don’t remember ever meeting anyone like you, and I’ve definitely never been told to stay away from Helix. Whoever you think I am and whatever you think I did, you’re lookin’ for someone else.”

A look of genuine confusion crossed the Pyrhians face.

“How can you forget this? I refuse to believe that my contribution to your personal history would be so mundane as to be forgettable. And it’s simply insulting to think that I, Murk, would make such a gross mistake in identifying you.”

“Murk… wait, I know that name. You’re the one who…”

Zack thought about what he was going to say, carefully putting it all into place.

“Oh?” said Murk. “Has your memory been jogged?”

“No,” said Zack. “I mean, maybe. You’re allegedly responsible for a number of smuggling operations in Veskid City. Some people thought you might be based in Helix. Are you that Murk? Whether or not the reports are true, mind you, I’m not interested in that…”

“Of course I’m that Murk. You know very well the kinds of businesses that I run.”

“No, I don’t,” said Zack. “I just work with people at the DMA. Your name comes up sometimes.”

“Playing dumb doesn’t suit you, Gamma. Instead, let’s see how you fare at playing dead.”

Episode 17: Imprisoning Pull

“Shouldn’t we cycle this thing’s airlock?” asked Zack.

“You planning on taking a civillian car into space?” asked Carmen as she powered up the engine.

“No, but isn’t it better to be prepared?”

“It’s better to get us out of here,” she said. “You wanted out of this town fast, and I’m going to get you there fast.”

“Right,” said Zack, activating his seat’s safety harness. “Sorry, I’m just paranoid today.”

Carmen muttered what was probably an agreement. The hover-pods activated, providing enough lift to let her rotate the car until it was facing the exit. The forward thrust rocketed them out of the hangar and into Helix’s air space before it quickly slowed down. Carmen, confused, flipped a few switches experimentally. Zack didn’t notice and, in fact, seemed to be enjoying the change.

“Okay, that’s a relief,” he said. “Just getting out of that town, I feel better.”

An alarm sounded, and Carmen flipped the switches faster, pushing her foot all the way down onto the thruster control pedal.

“What’s wrong?” asked Zack.

“Tractor beam,” said Carmen, checking her dashboard. “We’re being targeted by a tractor beam. From Helix.”

The car finished slowing down, coming to a momentary complete stop in the air.

“Why does a city have a tractor beam?” asked Zack, nervously looking back. Through the rear window he could see the green energy lancing through the air from a horizontal spire that jutted out from the super city. The green field of energy was slowly spreading over the car. Looking up he could see it beginning to cross the top window.

“I guess it’s a leftover from when they were planning to make Helix go into space before that whole plan got scrapped,” said Carmen. “It’s one of the perks to the racing federation housing a lot of its work here. It’s not come up yet, but if an out of control racer can get close enough to Helix, the tractor beam could pull their asteroid in.”

The car began to float backwards, pulled toward the tractor beam’s emitter like a fish being pulled toward a fishing rod by a patient fisherman.

“No, no, no,” said Zack, watching the creeping green glow. “We can’t let this happen. This is on purpose. Whoever’s doing this knows that we’re here.”

“Right,” said Carmen. “Fix it.”

“Fix it?” said Zack. “How should I fix it?”

“i don’t know, use your crazy superspy knowledge. Don’t you have some emergency gadget or know some secret about the frequency of standard tractor beams so that you can disrupt them?”

“What?” said Zack. “No. Why would I know that?”

“I don’t know, you’ve just got that… paranoid vibe about you. You know things.”

“Well why don’t you fix it?” he said. “Use that crazy mind power you’ve got to shake us out of here. Give the car an extra boost.”

“I’m petrakinetic, not ferrakinetic,” she said. “I can’t move metal. Does this look like an asteroid to you?”

“No,” said Zack. “But you can keep an atmosphere on an asteroid, so I thought maybe you could do other things.”

“Well I can’t do THIS thing,” she said, angrily. “There’s not enough rock in this ship for me to propel it.”

The green glow finished enveloping Carmen’s car, and the gradual backward pull became smoother. Carmen gave a final, frustrated rev of the engines before powering it down entirely.

“So, I’m guessing there aren’t any rocks down in Veskid you could use, then? Or loose chunks of Helix’s structure?”

“Not that’d be big enough to do any good,” said Carmen. “I’d have to try ripping something off of one of its walls. I’d need to get a good grip on it, and that’d be hard. Cement and concrete are trickier than good old fashioned stone. It’s too hard to get a grip on it. Mentally speaking.”

Zack stared back at the spire that was generating the tractor beam. He disengaged his safety harness and stood, pacing to the back of the car.

“So, that’s it, then,” he said. “I guess it’s no real surprise. No one’s ever gotten away from the DMA before, not when it’s one of their own. I should’ve turned myself in as soon as I heard of it. …I wonder if they’d have let me donate my own bounty to charity. A little late to do that now, though. I never should’ve thought there was any hope at all.”

“Oh!” said Carmen. “I just thought of something, actually.”

“What is it?” said Zack, leaping to Carmen’s chair. “I’ll take anything. Anything at all.”

“Well, I don’t think I could dislodge a chunk of wall large enough to knock us out of the tractor beam,” she said. “But I might be able to dislodge something else.”

“Really?” said Zack. “Like what?”

“Shh,” said Carmen. She closed her eyes and furrowed her brow. Zack watched her for a moment then looked back at the tractor beam’s emitter.

“So what are-“

“Shhhh!” said Carmen.

A hairline fracture developed on Helix. With some thought, Carmen was able to work that fracture, extending the crack and widening it. Too thin to see, it was all that she had to work with.

The tractor beam pulled them ever closer to Helix. Zack watched nervously as the car was maneuvered toward a section of the outer wall. A gate opened, an old-fashioned blast door with interlocking connectors that reminded Zack of a terrible maw. He couldn’t see through the shadows inside this hangar, and he doubted that it was one of the standard hangars available to the public. Zack grew more and more nervous the closer to Helix he came.

Carmen grew more and more confident the closer to Helix she came. While her petrakinetic powers could work over great distances, proximity helped. The inverse square law applied, in a fashion, both to the raw power of her abilities and to the finesse with which she was able to apply them. The fracture widened and began to carve a circle in Helix’s outer wall. The circle went deeper, and the edges started to carve inwards. A semicircle of stone was very slowly dug out.

Zack heard an alarm. A quick check of the sensor readout indicated an environmental hazard.

“Carmen, I don’t know what you’re doing, but…”

Suddenly, the chunk of wall holding the tractor beam was ripped from the side of Helix, causing the entire ship to shudder.

“Ha!” shouted Carmen, looking up through the window. The glow of the tractor beam began to fade and flicker, though the aura maintained itself.

“What happened?” asked Zack.

“Since I couldn’t save us, I thought I’d take out the beam,” said Carmen. “Only… shouldn’t the tractor beam shut off? I would’ve snapped the cables connecting the beam to the city’s power supply.”

“You might’ve shut off the power supply,” said Zack. “That might not shut off the power if it had capacitors installed.”

“Shouldn’t capacitors shut off in the event of a system failure like that?” asked Carmen.

“Helix was built before those safety standards were fully in place,” said Zack. “It would be a good idea, but… it looks like it didn’t.”

Carmen and Zack looked up at the now-teetering spire that created the beam. It tipped forward and the ship suddenly dropped, held steady in relation to the spire through the aura’s inertial manipulation.

“Hang on,” said Carmen. “This might be the ride of a lifetime.”

The spire finally fell out of its place on the wall, causing the car to enter a downward arc, whipping itself toward the outer wall of Helix at a deadly speed.