Tag Archives: Rendelac

Episode 147: Heed ‘Em

Zack coughed and stopped pushing through the underbrush. The heat of the jungle and the soft soil would have wearied him on the best of days, and today was worse than normal. Nectra glided back to his position from up ahead and watched him hacking and wheezing between the alien vegetation.

“Are you okay? You need to sit down for a bit?”

“Nah, I’m good,” said Zack. “I’ve just gotta stop smoking.”

“You smoke?”

“No, but I could pick it up. Any sight of the Lusca Vine?”

“The what?”

Zack stared at Nectra before shaking his head.

“Sorry, I mean… any sight of The Phantom Matador?”

“Yes!” she said, excited. “There’s a clearing ahead. The tracker points right to it, and he’s sitting right there, with a campfire. I think he’s ready. Is this running someone to ground? Did we run someone to ground?”

“I think we’ve gotta catch him first before we’ve run him to ground,” said Zack. “Idioms were never my strong suit. I think he’s run to ground, though. Maybe. Don’t the shangmere have sayings like that? ‘Fly him to web’ or something?”

“A few!” said Nectra. “Though we don’t have that one. Maybe we should? Flying doesn’t really come up very often as a hunting thing for us. I think the martial artists talk about it more?”

“Shouldn’t you know about that, then?”

“Why?”

“Well, you seem pretty martially artistic.”

“Oh, thanks! I’m not, though. I’m really not. This is just a hobby, and I’m more interested in the balancing part of it. Helps keep me focused!”

“Remind me to never cross an actual shangmere fighter, then,” said Zack, clearing his throat. “You’re pretty good from what I’ve seen. Now let’s… keep moving on. I’ve gotta make sure not to cough on my way into that clearing. I want to make sure he’s in my sights before he even knows that I’m there.”

***

“Your plan was sound,” said Vox, walking along the gentle trail that left the city of the Azurebacks. “And, in truth, there were some rumblings that Rendelac was able to translate that sound as if they relate to Zack Gamma. How did you plan on speaking to the Sthenites, though?”

Igneous reached to her back and moved a small, brown and red pack, one that Vox had assumed to be an oddly colored patch of rock that protruded from a shoulder. She opened the pack and a wave of cool mist billowed from within.

“I have basic supplies. A translation device is included. I don’t know if I could’ve picked up enough dialog for it to work, but I was willing to try.”

“Hmm. Well, fortunately for you, Rendelac and I were welcomed to the conversation. There was an instance of someone, referred to as Star Prey. This word might have applied to myself if Fletch hadn’t tried to detonate me. This Star Prey has been accepted by someone from another world, and may be facing a sort of trial to determine worth by the society. If this other Star Prey is, in fact, Zack Gamma, then we may have found our prey.”

“Our first target is Fletch,” said Igneous, sliding the pack over her back again. “Don’t forget that we need to find her first, Vox.”

“You think I’ll delay catching Zack for your whim?”

“I’m gonna die here, and you want money,” said Igneous. “For right now, I think your goal is closer to being a whim than mine. Humor me here.”

“Our deal did not specify that-”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “Binding oneself to the letter of the law leaves you subject to the letters of those whose good will you may later seek.”

“Yeah,” said Igneous. “Heed ‘em.”

Vox stopped walking. He reached into his own pack and pulled out Rendelac. The thin computer’s eye was glowing orange.

“Don’t think finding an ally will dissuade me any further.”

“You are free to act as you will, Vox Cul-Dar. My advice remains just as valid whether or not others support it.”

Vox frowned and pushed Rendelac back into his pack.

“And I am just as free to ignore the advice.”

“You carry around a philosophy computer just so that you can ignore it?” said igneous. “Someone’s gotta teach you a few lessons about packin’ light.”

“Rendelac’s teachings are often sound. When they apply to my situation, they are very worthwhile.”

“Fancy computer like that probably thinks what it has to say applies to your life just fine. Don’t blame it for doin’ its job, Vox.”

“Your opinion on what I do with my cultural heritage has been noted. Regardless, perhaps I was hasty. We will seek both Zack Gamma and Fletch. I expect this partnership to endure as we deal with both targets, though. I won’t have you abandoning me once we reclaim your Teles.”

“Right,” said Igneous. “Perish the thought.”

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The Azureback Encounter

“We will miss you, Sky-Carrion, but wish you well tonight as you depart,” said Weshar, repeating the words that the Chief Healer could not, by tradition, speak to people from other worlds. The Chief Healer nodded her head approvingly as Weshar intoned the rehearsed words. Vox Cul-Dar stood, bandaged and bruised but able, with Rendelac in the pack that he wore on his back. His robes had been damaged in the explosion that led to his designation as Sky-Carrion, but he had been able to clean them in exchange for his own information, information from the Rhythnian Boutique’s catalog that he was, in effect, trading back to the tribe that had culturally led to the boutique’s founding. Much of his knowledge came from offworld Sthenites taking advantage of the luxuries of Veskid’s civilization, though, so he wasn’t sure how much would be useful in the long term.

Rendelac chimed and translated Weshar’s words just as Weshar spoke the Chief Healer’s. Vox leaned against a walking stick (easily found from the drier fire wood that the Sthenites collected) and sipped more of the tea that he had come to enjoy. He nodded.

“Tell them that I am grateful for their hospitality, but that I must now leave. There is a great beast of earth and fire even now approaching them, and I would speak to it. It means them no harm, but goodness knows it may mean harm to me.”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “I caution against speaking falsehoods.”

“This is not a falsehood, Rendelac. It is a premonition. My destiny awaits us.”

Rendelac buzzed and spoke to the Azurebacks who had gathered to see his departure. The Chief Healer nodded and gestured to their city’s gates, giving him free passage to leave. The gates were situated next to the river that flowed through the town, a river that was not impeded by the city’s wall by virtue of the gates locked into place, gates that allowed the water to flow through while impeding the progress of potential invaders.

Vox approached the gate and a massive, red and blue-scaled Sthenite pushed the door open for him. A surprised susurrus of hisses and trills issued from the crowd as a mist, thick and roiling, poured through the door. Other Sthenites responded in more reasonable hisses to the worried crowd as Vox stepped into the ankle-high cloud.

“This is unseasonable,” said rendelac. “Fog and mist only emerge from their river at other times of the year, and then it manages to creep up from the portion of the river within the city as well. Reportedly some of the guards on the wall noted the unusual cloud bank that crept up in the late afternoon, and have been puzzled as to why it stopped right at the wall this evening.”

“Thank you for the information,” said Vox, turning to wave at the Sthenites as the door closed again, hurriedly pushed by the same Sthenite who opened it. “It does not change what I know of what is happening, but it does alter the context for how the Sthenites observe it.”

“Please share what you know of the scenario, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “You have been curiously prescient.”

“All will be made clear, once it gets foggier,” said Vox, stepping closer to the river bank where the mist was thicker. “Or perhaps steamier… this fog is warm and humid, not cold and clammy as I expected. It makes sense, though.”

“Does it?”

“To me, at least,” said Vox. “And, I presume, to our associate. Reveal yourself, intruder! You know who I am, and I know who you are, so this continued attempt at clumsy hiding helps neither of us, Igneous.”

Silence crept over the waters until, with a burbling splash, a dull-orange glow rose from the water, still obscured by the thick steam. The figure took steps to the shoreline until Igneous became visible, a towering pillar of orange and red interspersed with blackened, charred husks.

“How did you know it was me?” said Igneous, increasing the heat around Vox. Vox reflexively tried waving the hand with his wooden tea cup in the air to clear the extra humidity.

“The local culture is well worth investigating, Igneous. I take it that you’ve arrived to seek Zack Gamma?”

“You might say that,” said Igneous.

“You wouldn’t be trying to help him, would you?”

“If I was, it would be no business of yours,” said Igneous. “But I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

“You’ve spent too long among the humans to use such an idiom,” said Vox. “Though from the look of you, frying things may soon be your best career option.”

“That’s the main reason I’m here,” said Igneous. “Fletch is here.”

“Yes, I know,” said Vox. “We met… what does that have to do with anything?”

“She… threatened me. She’s carrying a dose of Teles.”

“Is she, now? That surprises me. I never would have taken her for a user.”

“She isn’t. I intended to use half of it.”

“Only half? But… last I checked, even a full dose of Teles would have little to no effect on a Pyrhian without… you mean pre-mixing, though, don’t you?”

“The frozen half of the Teles. It might delay my metamorphosis.”

“I see,” said Vox. “You know, most would just age with dignity rather than turning to such methods.”

“I’ve got business to finish before it happens,” said Igneous. “And I think I’ll need the time the Teles can buy to do that. She stole it from me, threatened me with the fiery half, and told me to stay out of her way, or help her to catch Zack if asked. I want the Teles back.”

“Naturally. As it so happens, I want her to stop getting in my way while hunting Gamma myself… I’ve an inkling of where we might find her, and an inkling of where we might find Gamma thanks to a gift from the Azurebacks. But why were you approaching their city?”

“I figured someone like Gamma would create enough of a stir to cause a commotion at some trace of civilization. This place was close enough to the landing site that word would’ve spread this far, assuming the Sthenites talk to each other.”

“Sensible. Well then… loathe though I am to splitting a bounty, it’s worse to keep someone like Fletch around. What do you say that we work as partners here? First to eliminating Fletch, and then to securing Gamma?”

Igneous’ mouth twisted into a smile, a motion visible now with her altered face.

“Good plan,” she said. “Wish I’d thought of it.”

Episode 134: Information, Influence, and Infamy

“This is amazing. It’s only a fraction of what it will be, but it’s amazing. The insight it gives… mustn’t get lost in the moment, though, lest it lead to a migraine.”

Vox took his first sip of the tea. He sat next to a warm fire, and felt the soothing tea roll through him. The apprentice healer, a silver-scaled and blue-feathered Sthenite named Weshar, sat in a coil next to him, nodding knowingly as the village bustled around them. Most ignored them and focused on their work, but a few of the younger ones lingered in curious groups to see the Sky-Carrion and his box that could talk and, more impressively, think.

“What gives insight, Vox Cul-Dar?” asked Rendelac, sitting next to Vox on the log that he had pulled from the pile of firewood to avoid sitting on the ground.

“I knew you would ask that,” said Vox, nodding back to Weshar. “Vox, would you tell our friend how happy I was to learn that I had been found… saved, even… by the Azurebacks.”

Rendelac issued a series of tweets, trills and hisses. Weshar watched the thin, black computer as its eye shifted from green to purple and back again. Rendelac was still not fluent in the Sthenite language, but his understanding was growing. The computer paused mid-hiss, and Weshar watched curiously.

“Theshtreshar,” said Vox. “The word you want is Theshtreshar.”

Rendelac’s eye changed to orange.

“What makes you so certain, Vox Cul-Dar?”

“These are the Azurebacks,” said Vox. “Most of the Sthenites who came to Veskid and created the Rythnian Boutique were Azurebacks, and there was great information about their culture.”

Rendelac’s eye remained orange, but it changed in hue and intensity, becoming darker and softer.

“I had the opportunity to witness much of your research, Vox Cul-Dar.”

“But not all of it.”

“No, but I find it unlikely that you found a comprehensive vocabulary.”

“Believe what you wish, Rendelac,” said Vox. He took another sip of the tea, and raised it in salute to Weshar, who watched the gesture without comprehension. “The boutique offered great insight.”

“Do not confuse knowledge for insight, Vox Cul-Dar. Or information for knowledge.”

“How can one have knowledge without information?”

“They can’t. But they may have lumber without a home, if the lumber has not yet been properly built.”

“That is… one of the classic truths,” said Vox. “It is strange that I forgot.”

“You have not studied the wisdom of Rendelac in quite some time, Vox Cul-Dar. A flaming coal will grow cool if denied oxygen for fuel and the companionship of other coals.”

“Perhaps I made the tea improperly, too. There are mind-affecting effects, after all. Anyway… continue thanking him for me, please. Theshtreshar.”

After a quiet moment where Rendelac’s eye stared at Vox, the eye swiveled back to Weshar and Rendelac began speaking in the local Sthenite tongue. Vox watched the locals work while Rendelac spoke, and waved to a cluster of the young who were watching from nearby. The young feathered serpents seemed to panic and quickly slithered away at being noticed. While not all of the Azurebacks had truly azure backs, there was an overabundance of blues, bluish purples and bluish greens on the scales and feathers of the assembled. Vox wasn’t sure how this compared to other Sthenite groups, but he assumed that there was a difference.

Rendelac stopped speaking and Weshar began hissing and trilling in response.

“He says that we are quite welcome, and he, in turn, thanks us for our, well… ‘explosive injury’ is the best translation, though it is not a literal one… and he hopes that the Cerulean Tea is as soothing as you had hoped.”

“It is,” said Vox, taking another sip. It was warm, and he could feel different parts of his mind pulling into sharper focus while others became murky. It would not be dangerous in such small quantities, but he still wanted to know how it would function in advance.

“So tell me,” he said with a smile, “how does one say Cerulean?”

Rendelac’s eye shifted to blue. Vox wasn’t sure if the blue shift was an emotional response, or if Rendelac had control over the appearance and was choosing to make the color fit the question.

“As you know… the word for Cerulean is Theshtreshar. It’s an unusually specific shade of blue, and unusual that you would ask when you already have this knowledge.”

“I’m exchanging information for insight,” said Vox. “I have plenty of lumber now, and I wish to build my house.”

Episode 132: Sky-Carrion

Vox Cul-Dar’s bulbous eyes snapped open.

He was in both pain and a large hut made of sturdy logs and stone. The roof looked like it was made of a forest floor, and dim light filtered in through a trio of holes that probably passed for windows in this society. Pulling himself into a sitting position he saw that he was on a small mat made of woven leaves and reeds. Other mats filled the room and a purple-scaled Sthenite with a grievous wound in its side was motionless on another. Tiny pots and jars lined the walls.

“I rise a new person, prepared for a new day, prepared for my future,” said Vox Cul-Dar, automatically reciting the words for the second time on this jungle world. His jaw hurt while speaking. His sides hurt while sitting. His head gently throbbed with pain.

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said the voice of Rendelac, sitting on a cushion of reeds at the head of the simple bed. “You have been through a great ordeal and experienced incredible trauma from a concussive force. Had you not leaped from Fletch’s explosive, you would have surely perished.”

“I feel as if everything is bruised,” Vox said, quickly examining himself. His tunic had been removed, making it easy to see numerous abrasions and areas where the green was turning a sickly shade of orange. “This is a hospital of some sort?”

“Yes,” said Rendelac. “The explosion drew the attention of the Sthenites, in particular one named Surshen. I have found them to be intelligent and wise in their handling of you and your situation.”

“How so?”

“Judging from what I’ve been able to translate of their language, their understanding of biochemistry was sufficient to determine how to give you quick treatments. They avoided certain medicines, saying that they may harm ‘other worlders’ but treated you with others that they felt would be safe.”

“I see. Were they correct?”

“In one instance, yes,” said Rendelac. “However, I believe most of their previous experience with people from other worlds has come from humans. It may please you to know that while most Other Worlders gain a certain term in their tongue, they have determined it does not apply to you.”

“Oh? What is this term?”

“Starprey.”

“Hmm. Yes… better to be at the mercy of their medicine than at the skill of their hunters.”

“Instead, they have taken to calling you Sky-Carrion.”

Vox narrowed his eyes.

“I think I like that. But I’m not sure.”

“There is a certain rough-and-tumble appeal to it, Vox Cul-Dar. Feel free to take joy in the term, but do not let it cloud your judgement about who you are.”

“Have no fear of that,” said Vox. “I come from their sky, was left for dead when I should have died, and I have risen again. I am under no misconceptions about who I am.”

He started rising to his feet, but the dull ache that stretched all the way down his legs quickly became a sharp, almost tearing sensation and he dropped back to the mat.

“Though I admit I may not have recovered as fully as I’d hoped.”

“This endeavor has taken a great toll on you, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “I fear it is transformative. I fear even more that it is merely a capstone of the path you have walked for years. You must rest.”

“Perhaps,” said Vox. He looked at the Sthenite on the other mat. The snake-like alien ruffled its feathers, giving the first indication Vox had seen that it was alive.

“Perhaps I shall stay a bit longer,” he said. “However, I must not tarry. How regularly do they check on their captives?”

“You are a patient.”

“How regularly do they check on their patients?”

“Regularly,” said Rendelac. “The Sthenite in charge of medical care enters every forty-five minutes, a time scale that fits their planetary rotation.”

“I will wait for another treatment from this medical caretaker of mine,” said Vox. “I will take more medicine. I trust they are receptive to you?”

“Yes, they have encountered computers before, presumably from other off-worlders. I could not understand the entirety of what they said to me, but they were civil enough to leave me near your bed.”

“With my limbs free for gesturing and your linguistic capabilities, perhaps we can convey which medicines will be most beneficial without poisoning me. I may have just lost the chase for Gamma to Fletch, Rendelac. That doesn’t sit well with me, but you are right that I have been pushing myself. Perhaps just a little longer… why do you think she set a bomb, Rendelac?”

“You are asking about Fletch’s motivations? This is difficult. She has never seemed like the other humans in the Desperate Measures Agency. She values things differently than others. My belief is that she set the explosive as an act of kindness.”

“Kindness?” said Vox, whipping his head in Rendelac’s direction and instantly regretting it. Pain radiated from his spine, encouraging him to lie back onto the bed.

“You had the dexterity required to avoid the blast, especially with the timer set after you triggered it. You were disoriented, but you were found by the natives. Killing you would have been simple, and she knew how to do it. Given your physical training and physiological differences from a human… that bomb slowed you down without ending your life.”

“I see. I can’t wait to receive her Get Well Soon noose.”

“Either way, you need to take the time to rest, Vox Cul-Dar.”

“I will take some time,” said Vox. “Not as much as you’d like, though. Or as much as she would like. We only have a limited amount of time to return her act of charity in kind.”

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 108: Jungle Predators

Igneous pushed aside a branch, stepped through, and removed her hand just as it started smoking. She didn’t think there was any real danger of her presence starting a forest fire amide these trees… most of them appeared too damp, and sometimes too spongy, to catch flame easily. Still, the occasional clouds from the branches she touched were beginning to worry her.

She checked her tracker again. The signal from Zack’s landing site was drawing nearer. It wouldn’t be long before she was in visual range.

She pushed between two thorny bushes that probably would have killed most humans attempting to travel by the same route, and paused at the sight of the small ravine in her path. A narrow bridge was formed by a fallen tree. She stared at the soft, spongy bark of the tree and wondered if she could maintain her balance on it. She also wondered what her chances would be of the tree not catching on fire and burning itself apart while she walked over it.

She took a deep breath, again wishing she knew if deep breaths or rushing winds would feed the heat inside her. She stepped back as far as the thorny bushes would allow, and ran forward. Her usual speed was diminished in part by ground much softer than the city streets or space stations that she frequented, and she had a moment of panic as her final footstep touched the edge of the cliff and propelled her forward.

She soared through the air, realizing that she wasn’t going to go as far as she usually could on a jump. She wondered if the soft soil was to blame, or if she had grown weaker than she realized while holding off her metamorphosis.

She dropped like, as the humans would say, a stone, arcing down too sharply. She pulled an arm back and, in a moment of desperation, punched the dirt inches below the ravine’s edge. Her fist dug into the soil of the cliff, and her fall halted in an outward explosion of muddy dirt and stone. She took the chance and reached up, putting an arm over the top of the cliff. She paused and, after a second without falling, began to laugh her low, rumbling laugh. The laughing lasted much longer than it had in recent memory, but it stopped abruptly when she realized that the edge of the cliff was starting to droop down toward her.

She dug her highest arm into the ground and scrambled up, pushing herself to finish the climb before too much of the cliff gave way. Moments of worry later, she pulled herself over the edge while piles of soft dirt fell behind her. She stood, jumped away from the edge, and walked a good thirty feet before looking back.

The bridge formed by the fallen tree remained in place, and the now-wider jump where she had attempted it looked maddeningly treacherous after what she knew about the soil structure.

“Next time, jump over the bridge instead of the empty air,” she told herself.

She checked the scanner again, got a fix on Zack’s landing site, and walked through the trees. She had work to do, and no time to dwell on the close call, but an observer familiar with Pyrhian facial expressions would tell you that her usual look of stony determination had been replaced with a genuine smile.

***

Vox Cul-Dar reached into the wreckage of the robotic parachute with the tweezers he’d included in the poison mixing kit. He held back a fold of the cloth with one hand while sifting aside chipped fragments of debris until a tiny, glowing dot came into view.

“There it is,” he said. “Rendelac, I’ve found it. We can begin the examination.”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “We have a disparity of goals.”

“What do you mean?”

“You wish to remain undetected and surprise Zack Gamma,” said Vox Cul-Dar. “You also wish to examine the remains more carefully. In the clearing we are visible. In the jungle we can hide. Your desire to examine the parachute itself is, while thorough, a risk greater than any rewards you are likely to glean. I suggest taking the tracking device with us into the trees and returning it after our examination is complete. Leave the parachute.”

“Sensible as always,” said Vox Cul-Dar. “I would know more of this parachute, though. The odds are against it, but it may have other useful information.”

“It is a possibility,” said Rendelac. “And though I advise against it, if the computerized elements of the parachute remain intact, it is possible that I could discern some of what caused Zack Gamma to abandon it here.”

“Oh, yes,” said Vox. “I would very much like to know this.”

“Seek a Minyural connection,”

“That’s one of the triangular wires, yes?”

“Indeed.”

Vox looked over the parachute and found a Minyural connection port. He retrieved Rendelac from his pack, found a Minyural cord in the secondary supplies he’d brought at Rendelac’s recommendation, and connected the computer to the robotic parachute.

“Processing,” said Rendelac. “Yes, there is data here. It appears that Gamma used the parachute twice.”

“A jump before leaving Carmen’s asteroid?”

“No,” said Rendelac. “A jump after.”

“After? How is that possib-”

“Urgent, we are not alone!” said Rendelac. “Scanners indicate another!”

Vox spun in place to scan the tree line, just in time to see Fletch swinging at him with two batons, ancient Earth weapons known as escrima sticks. He raised his arms and caught the two wooden weapons with the serrated edges of his limbs.

“Too slow!” he shouted, locking them in place against each other and preventing Fletch from manipulating them. The assassin snarled and jumped back just before he kicked the air where she had been with enough force to kill. He stomped onto the ground and pulled his arms apart, an act that caused the blades to slice through the weapons, destroying them.

Unfortunately, the arm blades also severed the high-voltage wires located within the rigged weapons. The batons released their charge into both of Vox’s arms, jolting him and causing him to stagger back. In a daze he looked up at his enemy, saw the stun rifle in her hands, and blacked out when the burst of energy passed through him.

Fletch tossed the rifle to the side, stepped to the parachute, and lifted Rendelac off the ground, keeping the Minyural wire plugged in as she did so. Her cybernetic reticle scanned the trees quickly and, convinced that she was alone, lifted the thin computer high enough to look into its green, softly-glowing eye.

“You’re Vox Cul-Dar’s pet computer,” she said.

“I am no pet,” Rendelac said. “I am an adviser and councilor, meant to instruct and-”

“Pet computer,” she repeated. “Word around the DMA says that he doesn’t listen to your advice unless it’s convenient for him. You’re a sentimental reminder of his past, I’m guessing.”

“I have often considered this,” said Rendelac. “You are speaking half-truths to rattle me. I know what is true of your statements, and what is not, and though I have emotions I do not have the emotional ties required to be confused by emotional manipulation. Humans have a wonderful gift for using emotions to outsmart those who are smarter than themselves, but Rendelac has never been swayed by such tactics. I speak both of the true Rendelac and myself when I say this.”

“Fine,” said Fletch. “No tricks. Just options. You’re here for Gamma.”

“Correct,” said Rendelac.

“Awfully honest there.”

“Deception is rarely warranted. I gain nothing with a lie at this time.”

“Great. You’re going to tell me everything about Vox’s work here. How did he know Gamma would be here, how he found this clearing, what his plans are for actually catching Gamma, everything. I’ve already worked a lot of this out, and if I get the sense that you’re leaving out an important detail then I snap Cul-Dar’s neck followed by three puncture wounds to vital organs since I know that neck snapping won’t kill him immediately like it would for a human.”

“Then why-”

“So he’ll die in pain,” said Fletch. “I took special precautions to avoid anyone else being on this planet. Just me, Gamma, and the locals. I don’t have time to deal with you and Vox. You’re the kind of complication that made Zack too tough to pick up back at Helix.”

“Very well,” said Rendelac. “I will tell you everything you want to know.”

“Maybe the great wisdom of Rendelac’s got something going for it after all,” said Fletch.

“I’m sure I don’t gain anything by saying so, but Gamma’s bounty can’t be worth this trouble. Money doesn’t buy happiness.”

“I’m not an assassin or bounty hunter for the money,” said Fletch. “I’m in it for the glory. The money’s a really nice fringe benefit, though. Now, no more stalling.”

***

Igenous pushed through the trees around Zack’s landing site, took one look at the scene, and instantly stepped back into the forest. A dazed-looking Vox Cul-Dar was on the ground, and Fletch was speaking to a computer, probably the Rendelac model that he used. She had known that she would run into Fletch sooner or later, but had hoped it wouldn’t be this early. She needed to move away from the clearing. Gamma obviously wasn’t anywhere near here, and the second that Fletch looked in her direction the cybernetic reticle would register her heat signature.

Igneous pushed away from the clearing, trying to think. If the tracer had been left behind, likely in that wreckage, then how would she find Gamma? And how had Vox gotten here? There was too much information she didn’t know.

The only thing she knew for sure was that if Fletch was around, then her supply of Teles wouldn’t be too far.

Episode 106: The Expected Clearing

Igneous opened the cold tub and instantly regretted it.

The sweltering humidity of the jungles of Mandrake crashed into her, overwhelming what little of the tub’s chill that hadn’t already been subsumed by the heat she generated.

She willed herself to be stone in that moment. The rock men and rock women of the Pyrhians were, with some noteworthy exceptions, the strongest and most stable of the others, and that strength was often mental and spiritual just as much as it was physical. She reached over the side and pulled herself into the sweltering heat.

The clearing was wide, and much like she had expected. Before Carmen had programmed Zack’s landing site into the robotic parachute, Igneous had attempted to determine which part of the planet, and if possible which landing site, the racer would select. Few people realized how easy it was to predict the decisions of others if those decisions were based on standard computerized methodology. Without adding qualifiers like ‘one of the top fifty-three results’ or even ‘I’m trying to avoid detection, mix it up a little,’ replicating such strategies was easy enough. After determining what clearing on the planet would fit the most variables, she selected one near to it; Zack had no reason to suspect that she would follow him to Mandrake, and dropping off her tub right next to him could lead to uncomfortable questions.

Igneous reached into the cold tub and withdrew her small package of supplies, feeling like she was swimming through the atmosphere with every motion. She wanted to collapse onto the ground and take the time to acclimate to the oppressive environment, but knew that her time before metamorphosis was more likely to be measured in hours or minutes than in days. After a quick visual inspection to make sure that nothing was damaged, she withdrew the heat resistant tracing module. As expected, the tracker pinpointed Zack as waiting in the clearing where Carmen dropped him off. She smiled at the break in her fortune, hoisted a liquid nitrogen cannister out of the tub and over her shoulder, and moved out of the clearing.

***

Vox Cul-Dar stared at the gouge in the red soil, not knowing what it meant but assuming it was a problem.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “Gamma was here, I can feel it. But something else was, too…”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac, chiming in from Vox’s backpack. “Some of the detritus crushed on the ground is not native to this jungle. It appears to be mechanical in nature, and still partially functional.”

“Where?”

“Twenty meters down the channel.”

Vox followed the track in the ground, stepping over the twigs and flattened grasses. Soon, he found a device made of black metal, crumpled flat by something of immense weight. It was as if an incredibly tall-but-thin tree had crashed violently exactly where Zack’s gear had been dropped, but no sight of the tree remained. The hole in the ground near the start of the channel might have been the location of a stump, but no trace of it remained either. Vox turned his mind from the oddity and turned the remnants of the device with his slender hands.

“It appears to be a robotic parachute. A signal is issuing from it, likely from another device stored within.”

“Intriguing,” said Vox. “Perhaps the signal is how Zack planned on being found again after landing. A third party must be arriving to get him off of Mandrake again. Something happened here, though, making Zack leave the rendezvous point.”

“That is one possibility,” said Rendelac. “You could destroy the signal and prevent there being any chance of rescue. Or, you could keep the signal active to increase the likelihood that Gamma’s rescuers will arrive and have some way of drawing him back to this location.”

“Either way, his fate lies in my hands,” said Vox, sifting through the debris. “This is a golden opportunity, Rendelac. We would do well not to waste it.”

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 94: Traffic Troubles

“We have a problem, sir.”

Vox Cul-Dar turned from the window by his seat and looked into the face of the ship’s captain. He knew that on a larger ship a discussion of problems would have been delegated to an underling, but the other crew were probably busy with essential tasks. Vox stared at the captain with his large, unblinking eyes, knowing that humans found it unsettling. The captain, used to shady employers and employees, took it as his cue to continue.

“We’re approaching Mandrake,” said the captain. “There aren’t any problems with your direct instructions as written, but the situation near Mandrake isn’t ideal for your drop. An alarming number of witnesses hovering near the planet, almost all on the side where you want to be dropped.”

“What sort of witnesses?”

“Mostly people from that group that races asteroids, so there’s a lot of rocks waiting right by where we’d fly, each with one or two petrakinetics. There’s also a few small ships connected to the organization, and one of their security ships. Worse than that, though, there’s a vessel from a news organization, so there’s a reporter mixed in with the witnesses.”

“So it’s more than just Carmen Shift and her friends now,” said Vox.

“You expected this kind of traffic?”

“It’s what brought me here. No matter; I can be seen taking this trip, even if it risks tipping my hand to competitors. Carry out the plans as discussed.”

“We’ll have to wait for a moment when we can carry out your instructions with more discretion.”

“I’m not paying for discretion,” said Vox, lifting one of his serrated arms to point emphatically as he spoke. “I’m paying to be deposited on that planet and picked up later.”

The captain looked at Vox’s insect-like arm and then back at his eyes, not phased by either.

“I think you misunderstand, sir. I didn’t say you had a problem, I said that we had one. We can’t be seen taking you to Mandrake. Unless you want to pay more than it’s worth to give us the license we’d need to make this trip legal, there’s no way we can safely land without causing trouble. We’ll be waiting for the traffic to clear up from a safe distance. With luck they’ll just assume we’re curious racing fans taking a detour from our shipping schedule to get a closer look at what’s happening.”

Vox narrowed his eyes, a habit he’d picked up from humans. He felt anger at the delay, but heard many of Rendelac’s teachings bubbling up in the back of his mind from previous times he’d let his anger carry him away.

“This is unfortunate,” he finally said. “Take your time, but please approach the planet the moment it becomes safe to do so.”

“Thank you,” said the captain, turning to walk toward the cargo hold.

Vox turned back to his window and stared at the stars outside. He wasn’t sure why the racing federation was taking so long on the other side of the planet, but knew that his lead on finding Gamma would evaporate if it lasted too long. Whatever the business was, he hoped it was worth it.

***

“I couldn’t be happier for Andara,” said Carmen, speaking to the reporter over her headset. “I’m glad to see a rookie do so well.”

“Miss Fugue will be happy to hear that,” said the reporter. “It’s got to be a shame to not come in first yourself, though.”

“Oh,” said Carmen, mentally keeping herself from grinding her teeth, “it’s not so bad. I was just racing for fun since I’d pre-qualified. Winning’s not im… winning’s not that important. I can handle not… finishing. It was more important that Xorn’Tal, Flashman and I try to take down the Phantom Matador.”

“And you came pretty close from what I hear,” said the reporter. “If not for the shangmere stowaway, you-”

“Yeah, it’s a real shame,” said Carmen. “I’m just glad he didn’t cross the finish line.”

“This makes the second time an asteroid of his has been captured without anyone being able to contain the Phantom Matador himself. Do you think he’ll ever be captured?”

“If he ever shows his face again, absolutely,” said Carmen. “Hey, this is starting to feel more like a press release than an interview, so could I-”

“Any thoughts on the Federation’s decision to include the Phantom Matador in the official statistics of the Corona Circuit’s races? It’s only been a few hours since they announced the decision, but it’s already-”

Carmen closed the channel, tapped her headset in frustration, and sent a call to Xorn’Tal. The alien plant creature answered almost immediately.

“Greetingage,” he said.

“Did they finally stop peppering you with questions, or did you get mad like I did?”

“Entity-None: angry: like Carmen.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Reporters: inquiry cessation. Discovery theirs: interview mine: difficult.”

“Yeah, I wonder why they felt that way. Any word from Vince?”

“Reporters: inquiry continuation: Vince.”

“He always did like a camera. Any thoughts on how much longer we’ll need to be up here?”

“Police: investigation pends. Asteroid: examination. Unit-Corona Champions: examination: medical.”

“Why haven’t we gotten our medical exam yet?”

“Doctor Zeta: delay. Ruling preference: examination medical: unnecessary.”

“I agree, but the fed’s gotta be sure that we’re okay. We were off the grid for the last third of that race. If nothing else, Zeta could use a petrakinetic scanner and make sure that no one’s being tricked by the Phantom Matador into thinking he’s not there. Last thing we want is for him to get away again.”

“Phantom Matador: escape: fact.”

“Maybe,” said Carmen. “I’m worried about the fact that I didn’t see it happen.”

“Rocksense: trustable.”

“Right, it is,” said Carmen. “I don’t think he could trick out what I was feeling on the rock. But if he could…”

Carmen looked at the plethora of asteroids in the sky above, a hemisphere filled with concerned racing officials.

“I don’t know how he would’ve hidden the bat from all of us. But if he could, I’d be more worried.”

“Likelihood: small.”

“Right,” said Carmen. “I’ve just seen one too many horror flicks where the mutant has one last power that nobody knows about. Like the one where the aquakinetic was also ferrokinetic and could send his mind through copper wires.”

“Movie writing: bad, implausible.”

“I hope you’re right, Xorn’Tal. I hope you’re right.”

Episode 81: The Collectible Kuiper

“And the winner is… Andara Fugue, the furious first-timer from far off Fenris! Winning by a wide margin, this is her first race on a federation-sanctioned circuit. While it won’t have a direct effect on the season’s standings, this qualifying race should already have the bookies scrambling to adjust her odds for the Nebula Circuit. Still no official word from the Corona Cup victors on why they’re so far from the finish line, and they’ve maintained radio silence since seemingly stalling by Mandrake, but we’ve got officials nearing their position to find out what’s up.”

Carmen felt the boots of Vince Flashman landing on her asteroid, and took the welcome opportunity to stop listening to Mark Matthew’s color commentary. She opened a channel with Vince, preparing to coordinate.

“Welcome to my ride,” said Carmen. “Don’t track mud all over it.”

“Right,” said Vince. “Carmen, this feels… off. I knew you had some tiny caves in the Kinetic Kuiper, but this doesn’t feel structurally stable.”

“It was that stowaway,” said Carmen. “She had some kind of energy weapon. I tried ripping rocks to fence her in, but she just started slicing her way out. So about twice as much damage happened as I intended.”

“Think you’ll still be able to use it?”

“I hope so. Took me forever to find one this nice.”

“I bet. It was hard to believe its stats on the federation’s cards when I read ‘em.”

“You pick up the federation’s collectible merch? Dude, the band shouldn’t wear its own t-shirts to a gig, it’s tacky.”

“Hey, I won’t apologize for the hobby. I only joined the federation last year, and I had the Kinetic Kuiper’s card two years ago.”

“Well, I’m sure the Federation appreciates your donation in exchange for digital collectibles.”

“Never did the digicards,” he said. “I bought the physical ones.”

“Nice,” said Carmen. “Want me to sign it after we’re out of here?”

“You already did.”

“What?”

“Yeah, two years ago after you won at the Ray’s World Races. You had a few minutes to sign things before dashing off, you got it signed then.”

Carmen remembered the race. Ray’s World wasn’t on the beaten path. Most of the spectators there were already racers, but on unofficial courses. Most of the people sticking around to sign things were already doing well for themselves in the semi-legal racing on that world, or they were looking for good chances to network and find better chances at better races. She signed a lot of things there, and couldn’t recall any faces clearly.

“Whoa,” she said. “Man, I’m sorry, I don’t remember you from that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You didn’t know me then, and you had a lot of people wanting autographs.”

“Not as many as usual,” she said. She winced, realizing that sounded like she was bragging.

“I mean, the crowd there was a good one, they were the real deal,” she said. “I should be able to remember people from that group. I’ve gotta stop being a sell out.”

“Carmen, you’re not a sell out,” he said. “Are we going to keep talking about if you’re awesome enough to be an asteroid racer, or are we going to work on tugging you out of this death spiral?”

“Right,” she said. “Sorry, I’ve just not thought about Ray’s World in a while. With two of us, moving up and out should be a breeze. Let’s roll.”

***

Vox Cul-Dar scrolled through the options in the Rythnian Boutique’s catalog. He loved the way they were organized by lethality. Death in an hour, half an hour, a third of an hour, a fourth of an hour… the bizarre effects were almost secondary to the artistry of application.

“The finish line has been crossed in the qualifying race for the Nebula Cup,” said Rendelac, the computer’s eye switching from orange to green.

“I don’t want to hear about Carmen Shift,” said Vox. “She fired me from her assignment, and as such only interests me as a lead for catching Gamma. Do you think a poison is more effective through an injury, skin contact, inhalation or ingestion? Applying poison to a weapon has a bit of poetry to it, but I’d need to find one that would affect Zack without affecting me.”

“The winner was not Carmen Shift,” said Rendelac.

“No? Did The Phantom Matador surprise everyone again?”

“Yes and no,” said Rendelac. “The winner of the race was newcomer Andara Fugue. The Phantom Matador, while present on the race, did not win.”

“Well, I suppose my services would not be required even if I was there, then, if the Matador isn’t crossing the finish line.”

“The Matador appeared near the world of Mandrake. As it so happened, Carmen shift, Vince Flashman and Xorn’Tal were all heading in that direction. Mandrake itself, while a valid location in the race course, was off the beaten path. A theoretical speed boost is possible, and racers of their caliber are certainly capable of achieving positive results from such a risky attempt, but it’s an unusual coincidence that they would all try it.”

“If they were trying to show each other up, I can certainly understand them trying it together,” said Vox.

“The Matador and the three racers moved to the far side of Mandrake, and then seemed to vanish. Glimpses of them have been seen from long-range scans, but they’ve not returned yet from that side. Perhaps they joined forces to subdue the Matador, but complications arose. They don’t appear to be in danger, but they are suspiciously silent, not even communicating with their racing crews.”

“You’re correct that this is strange,” said Vox. “If they subdued the Phantom Matador… or if the Matador were assaulting them in some way… they would communicate. Are you suggesting some other secrecy in play?”

“Racers are known for sticking together in the face of what they view as unnecessary consequences from authorities, even among rivals. If one of them has a secret, it would be easy to convince the others to maintain it.”

Vox considered this. Xorn’Tal and Flashman were unknown factors and could have any number of secrets. But Carmen…

“Gamma,” he said. “Could someone hide on one of those asteroids?”

“It’s possible,” said Rendelac.

“And from the far side of Mandrake, no one could see an asteroid land to let off a passenger, and that would take time…”

“It’s more likely that the Matador caused some delay, and that a passenger would jump,” said Rendelac. “An asteroid that lands on a planet is very difficult to retrieve.”

“Of course,” said Vox. “Regardless… it sounds like Carmen’s been hiding Zack in plain sight.”

“Hidden inside an asteroid and revealing him on the opposite side of another planet where no long-range scanners are positioned to see anything is hardly pl-”

“I’m setting an order for poison, Rendelac,” said Vox. “I need to go off world. Have my order delivered so that I can pick it up on the way.”