Tag Archives: science fiction

Episode 166: Velocity

Captain Ortega spiraled out of the window, suddenly realizing the incredible danger that space presented without a rocket pack. He’d been adrift in the vacuum of space without a functioning rocket before, of course, but only rarely, and even then in friendlier space.

The display inside his helmet provided accurate, informative, and ultimately useless data about his location (related to both the Dyson ship and the nearby world of Veskid), the nature of his somersaulting through the void, and his proximity to the alarming pieces of sod, debris, and grass that were pouring out of the window with him.

Ortega took a deep breath, reminded himself that step one in these situations was to stay calm, and he flipped open the control panel on the left arm of his flight suit. Typically he removed as many of his suit’s automatic processes as he could; he almost always wound up in these situations on purpose as a result of a controlled risk, and he couldn’t count on the safety protocols to have his interests in mind. In this instance, though, the auto-stabilization servos needed to be reactivated.

He tapped in the command, and felt the ion jets in the suit activate, seemingly erratically though he knew they were all the results of heuristically determined calculations from his on-board computer. He saw the jets activate from panels on his arms, his torso, and once on his knee. He felt constricted as the armored flight suit became more rigid so that his own movements wouldn’t alter the intended results from the bursts of the ion propulsion units. In a matter of seconds, the wild, erratic spinning had been replaced by a gentle tumble that oriented him along the exterior of the Dyson vessel and matched its general velocity, though if it activated its engines to move anywhere even at a low speed he’d soon fall away from it. With luck he’d drift onto the ship soon, hopefully before anyone inside figured out where he was.

He craned his neck and took a look at Veskid over his shoulder. He didn’t expect the Dyson forces to honor the terms of the public display he’d sprung on them, but with any luck his success against the Emperor’s Herald would keep morale high and buy some time.

His proximity alarm began keening and a red light on his display started tracking something moving toward him, and fast. Ortega turned to look and saw the massive, hulking body of Harold Zamona, clutching and steering Ortega’s rocket pack to his chest. Ortega lifted an arm, but it didn’t keep him from Zamona’s rocket-fueled collision, an impact that caused damage warnings to begin flashing across his screen. Ortega’s eyes were instead drawn to the timer that had been tracking his expulsion from the vessel, a timer currently putting the time since his defenestration at twenty-one seconds, a time even longer for Zamona.

“How?!” Ortega shouted, even though he knew that Zamona couldn’t hear. On the other hand, the massive monster of a former wrestler shouldn’t have been able to see him at all; a person’s eyes typically gave out after ten seconds when exposed to direct vacuum, and moments after that he should have lost consciousness. The display was beginning to detect faint traces of Cyanosis on Zamona’s skin that Ortega hadn’t initially spotted himself, so he was at least relieved to see that the asphyxiation was beginning to affect him.

“What did those aliens do to you?” he said, though Zamona gave no indication that he understood. Instead, the former wrestler glared with rage, took one hand off of the rocket pack, reached forward, gripped Ortega around the chest, and squeezed.

The alarms began to ring even louder in Ortega’s helmet, and he felt the intense pressure on his chest. Soon, in a moment, his vision faded to black, with his final sight being the ceaseless glare of Zamona’s eyes.

Episode 163: The Rocketpark Screwjob

Captain Ortega fired the blaster again, but Harold Zamona, moving faster than anything his size should be able to move, jumped behind one of the arena’s ramps. Ortega used his rocket to move into the air, wary of a sudden approach by the former wrestler and worryingly aware by now that his blaster, even on deadly settings, was mostly ineffective. At the strongest settings, his blaster could take out steel walls in seconds, but he wasn’t detecting more than a light singe whenever he successfully fired on Zamona, and the neurological properties of the blaster on the lower settings never did more than daze. He’d encountered other creatures that were effectively immune to his weaponry before, of course… ethereal beings of energy, ancient beasts with thick skin designed for volcanic worlds, and military-grade robots had all shrugged of his blaster… but none seemed so close to a baseline human as Zamona. His primary weapon was simply not effective.

The wrestler appeared overhead, somehow at the top of a ramp that arced higher than Ortega had flown. The captain killed his rocketpack’s engine just enough to start dropping like a stone, reactivated it when he’d fallen far enough to miss Zamona’s initial downward punch, and propelled forward in a graceful arc that took him toward the massive, transparent window that composed most of the wall of the park-like chamber. Ortega activated his reversal thrusters to keep himself from colliding with the transparent wall, and was treated to a spectacular view of Veskid amid the stars just as he heard the sound of Zamona hitting the ground behind him. He looked back and saw the titanic figure standing up from a crouch, and tensed while Zamona took calm, easygoing steps toward him.

“You’re pretty nimble for someone in a beat-up space suit. I can keep this up all day, though. The Dyson Empire’s not eager t’see someone so capable foolishly throwin’ their life away. What say you throw in the towel and tell the folks at home that you’re surrenderin’, and that they should too.”

“Seriously?” said Ortega, smiling. “I’ve got you on the ropes.”

“Funny. I don’t think you’re gonna like how this ends, though. Parents, you might wanna send your kids out of the room if they’re watchin’ this.”

Zamona jumped forward and Ortega rocketed upward. Zamona’s fist connected with the window and a horrible crunching sound cascaded through the room. Ortega held his breath as warning alarms started chiming, but he relaxed when he saw the herald’s fist retract to reveal that the window had crumpled instead of shattered.

“Transparent metal instead of shielded glass!” Ortega shouted.

“Couldn’t tell you.”

“Makes sense for a window that size, it holds up better against air pressure,” Ortega said, touching down on the ground. Zamona raised a confused eyebrow.

“Not flying away? Rethought surrender?”

“Nah,” said Ortega, unlatching the rocket pack from his back. “Just switching weapons. Computer, go to full burn, head for the big guy.”

Ortega swung the pack forward just as the engines turned from red to orange, yellow, blue, and white. The pack rocketed toward a surprised Zamona, slammed into him, and pushed him into the window. The Herald struggled for a second, further increasing the structural damage on the wall behind him, as he reached forward and tried to manipulate the pack.

“Nice try,” he said. “I’ve still got just enough control to not let this thing push me out, though. And it’s just not gonna hit hard enough to hurt me.”

“Don’t need to hurt you,” said Ortega. He pulled the trigger on his blaster and fired, striking the window just over Zamona’s shoulder. Too late, Harold reflexively lifted a massive hand to ward off the blast, not realizing that he wasn’t the target. An orange glow accompanied the increased heat as the transparent wall distorted. Harold looked back.

“Wait-”

The combined force of the rocket pack and the herald’s shoulders took their toll. The diminishing cohesion of the window failed, and the wall ruptured. An intense rush of air defenestrated the former wrestler, and the rocket made sure that he vanished into the void before he could react to what was happening.

Captain Ortega felt the rush of air and reflexively activated the magnetic boots on his spacesuit, a futile action while standing on the grass and soil of the rocket park arena. In a moment he’d lost his footing and been pulled into the emptiness just outside of the ship’s hull.

Episode 162: Sneezing Powder

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

“Hmm?”

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

Silence ensued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are Nectra, yes?”

“Ye-”

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

“What?”

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

“You’re a friend of Zack’s?”

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

Episode 161: Starprey No More

“The Suzerain grants you welcome.”

Zack nodded, trying to avoid the irate looks that Chala was shooting at him. She was translating for the Suzerain during the Sthenite’s closing statements at the conclusion of his trial, but he could tell that Chala had more to say after she was done relaying the official’s words.

“You are free to move between any encampment that recognizes the leadership of the Suzerain, and afforded the protection and hospitality due any of the true people of this world. Welcome, Tzak, Starprey no more.”

The Suzerain finished speaking well before Chala did as she focused on translating, and the crowd of Sthenites reacted to the Suzerain’s statement well before Zack heard it in its entirety, with most hissing, whistling, and chattering excitedly to each other. He took a deep breath as he felt a single threat to his life suddenly nullified. He instantly regretted the inhalation as the moving air in the back of the throat triggered his cough again.

The Suzerain nodded approvingly and turned to leave, as did many of the other Sthenites who had gathered before the stage. Zack watched the majority of the Sthenites depart and quickly jumped to his feet. He didn’t have much time left in the head start that Fletch had granted him, and that was assuming he’d been keeping time correctly and that Fletch would honor her end of the deal.

He walked toward the perimeter of the camp, and moved to its outer wall, nodding to the two massive snakes who began pushing the boulder away from the way out of the camp.

“No! You don’t leave yet, Gamma!”

Zack winced. The boulders weren’t far enough apart yet. He couldn’t dive forward and race into the jungle. He turned around, saw the incoming fist, and nearly avoided Chala’s punch. He fell backward from the impact, tripped over his own shoes, and landed on the ground. Nearby Sthenites who had been chattering excitedly had begun whistling and murmuring nervously at the sight of the two human-Sthenites suddenly engaged in an altercation, and the two by the door paused, wondering if their services were still needed. Zack waved to them to continue as Chala pulled the bow off of her back and aimed it at him.

“How could you, Gamma? What you did there-”

“Look, if you’re worried about me shooting Nectra-”

“No! You didn’t shoot Nectra. I’ve seen that energy burst before.”

“Thought you might’ve,” he said, slowly inching back to his feet and massaging his chin.

“That was the Oborosian Stone!”

“Excuse me?” said Zack.

“The Fact. Don’t tell me you don’t know what it does. This whole thing… this whole set up, you and Nectra were trying to steal it right from under my nose!”

“No!” said Zack. “Look, I’m sorry, but when I figured out what the stone did, I realized-”

“And you thought you could mask it with your guns. The Sthenites might know pistols, but you’d guess they don’t know what yours look like on the different settings.”

“Right,” said Zack. “You’re right about that. But only that. Look, I’m not trying to steal anything. You can have it back, even.”

“I can?”

Chala lowered her bow, but kept rolling her finger around an arrow. Zack watched the weapons carefully.

“Sure!” said Zack. “Look, when I figured out what it did, it was an accident. Tossed me back a few minutes in time, only shifting my position a little. I had… I had literally no idea what was happening until I saw the Sthenites carrying me back to the hut where they were keeping me.”

Chala looked at Zack uncertainly, but still accusingly.

“How did you keep it from the Sthenites? The Phantom Matador had it.”

“I lifted it off him when Nectra and I were moving his body through the jungle. Hid it in my hat, which would be a good hiding place even if it wasn’t teched out. A good smuggler always keeps a false top in those things, at the very least.”

“So you had the Fact… you recognized it while moving the Matador… hid it in your hat where no one thought to look for it… and then figured out it was the Orobosian Stone?”

“Well, I didn’t know it’s name,” said Zack. “I recognized it as a Fact initially and wondered what it was, then I just… look, you hear about time travel in stories all the time, and I was stunned to realize the Fact allowed it, but I couldn’t pass up using it. I wasn’t gonna kill Nectra… and frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t planning on it, the state I’m in. But I sure wasn’t gonna let her kill me either. This was an out.”

“You should have told me, Zack.”

“I couldn’t! You might have thought it was cheating, and you’re a Sthenite.”

“And you don’t think it was cheating?”

“It was guile. I brought the real murderer to justice here, and got the nod of approval from the Suzerain, who just needed an out herself, as you put it. I think the Suzerain, and the weird hallucinated snake-person who talked to me, would both be fine with this.”

Chala shook her head.

“You should’ve told me, Zack. I wasn’t done studying the Orobosian Stone, but I’ve figured out a lot. Plus, a Virellium energy wave is required to kickstart the Fact. If she hadn’t been wielding that scythe of hers when she activated it, I don’t think it would’ve worked for her.”

Zack blinked and rethought the last moments of the trial, considering how high he’d turned the damage on his Purcellian Strikers to help sell the show. He briefly considered Nectra’s last moment being a realization of betrayal and quickly pushed that thought from his mind.

“You’re right,” he said. “I should’ve mentioned something to you. So… fellow Sthenite, will you help me track down Nectra? I left a note for her in my hat, but I don’t know if she’ll find it, and even if she doesn’t a smart assassin like her’ll probably be just outside waiting for us, but no sense making her wait too long.”

“Especially since she’s Starprey.”

“Seriously?”

Zack and Chala stepped into the jungle, and the titanic, cobra-like Sthenites began rolling the boulder back into place.

Episode 160: Blinding Blasters

Captain Ortega instinctively activated his jet pack, and spun to a gentle stop. He shook his head, still not sure what had just happened but feeling like a grenade had detonated to the left of his helmet, which hadn’t been active moments earlier. Alarms rang in the suit’s audio notifier and flashed on the display inside his helmet relaying a substantial amount of damage, damage comparable to being struck by a mag-lev. He turned in the air, frantically looking for his assailant and seeing the titanic figure leaping, nearly filling his vision entirely. Instinct prompted the triggering of his jet pack more than rational thought, and the captain launched higher into the air, narrowly missing Harold Zamona’s enormous fist.

He zipped through the sky in the domed section of the vessel, saw a ring hovering in the air, and instinctively moved toward and through it, keeping his eye on the giant figure below. He issued a diagnostic command for both his suit and his weapon, using both the Astroguard standard commands and the customized diagnostic commands that a friend made shortly after it became clear that Doctor Rogers was taking their frequent altercations personally. While neither diagnostic program indicated any immediate tampering with his equipment (apart from damage comparable to crashing onto a slow Class-C asteroid on his helmet from Zamona’s punch), he decided to leave the processes running in the background.

As the antigrav thrusters built into the rocket pack sent him through the hovering ring, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, rotated to the side, and saw Harold Zamona leaping off a ramp at the top of a nearby hill. The former wrestler sailed through the air, propelled by the power of muscles alone, and just missed a chance to swat Ortega out of the air thanks to the captain’s quick downward dive. Ortega looked up and over his shoulder to see the monstrous figure clinging to the hovering ring up above.

“Don’t think you’ll hide down there,” shouted Zamona. “I know I said there was nowhere in here I couldn’t get to you, but at least make me work for it!”

Ortega eased into an arc that allowed him to skim just over the grass while he examined the environment. He raised the laser blaster, took aim, and pulled the trigger just a moment too late to hit Zamona, who dropped from the ring, fell, and landed in the soft grass, an act that left a noticeable impression in the soil. Ortega slowed, took aim, and fired again, just as Zamona charged at him. The blast of energy connected with the forehead, making Zamona slow down and shake his head, as if momentarily dazed. Ortega’s eyes widened, and he took advantage of the wrestler’s slower speed to zip into the air.

“No offense, but you move and take a hit like some of the meaner dinosaurs. Hiding’s a viable strategy!”

“Like you know how dinosaurs hit…” said Zamona, holding his hand to his head and scanning the skies for his target.

Ortega pushed away a memory of an ill-fated temporal engine that Doctor Rogers had employed and focused on his surroundings. The laser had affected Zamona, but it did little more than daze him, which shouldn’t have been biologically possible based on what he knew of the blaster’s stun setting. Neurological scrambling should occur no matter how much musculature a human (or even human-like alien) possessed, but the wrestler remained standing.

With a final shake of the head, a look of clarity crossed over Zamona’s eyes and his gaze snapped toward Captain Ortega. Ortega quickly flew further away, and adjusted settings on the rifle to increase its lethality.

***

Zack’s aim was off.

Nectra was zipping leaping through the air quickly and not, he noticed, making the mistake of opening her wings to slowly glide, exactly the kind of opening he needed to make her drop. While he didn’t expect the cheering Sthenites to be pacified by simply rendering an opponent unconscious, he’d rather have that case be made with Nectra being the one taking the nap.

He coughed violently, feeling it deep in his chest. It was stabbing now, and if he ever figured out just how he picked it up he was going to dedicate a portion of his increasingly short life to making someone miserable. He looked up just in time to see the shangmere fall from the sky, kick his shoulders with her claw-like feet, and strike his head with her staff.

Zack fell back as Nectra lit on the ground, twirling her weapon as the multicolored blade of Virellium-fueled force energy activated. At first she was backlit by the bright sun hanging in Mandrake’s green sky, making her seem like a moving shadow with a single blue-tinted rainbow of a blade swooping away from her staff, but she thankfully stepped closer and reduced the glare. He couldn’t easily see her face during the fight, but standing closer to her now she looked genuinely morose. She shuffled forward, clutching her staff, but moving with a purpose that Zack never liked to see.

“Y’look like a kid who’s gotta put down a stuffed animal,” he said. He lifted an arm with one of his Strikers, but Nectra was still moving fast; she twirled her staff to knock the weapon out of his hand, and sighed.

“Bye, Zack,” she said, lifting the curved energy blade over her head. “I’m really gonna miss you.”

“Wait,” he said. “Nectra, there’s still a few ways this can go down. We didn’t really have time to talk earlier-”

Nectra’s eyes flashed and she looked up at the ring of Sthenites.

“I think the time for figuring out a quick escape was before we got here. This is… this is probably the worst time to say that you didn’t want to try to run away. They don’t sound reasonable. I don’t… I don’t think what you’re thinking will work. I thought you were going to k-… Zack, is this a trick? Is this-”

“Yes,” he said. “Definitely a trick. But not against you. It’s a longshot, but… look, we’ve got less time than a fish out of orbit. Win or lose, would you like my hat?”

“What?” asked Nectra, blinking a confused blink with her giant, unsettling eyes.

“If I die here, keep it,” he said, taking the green hat off of his head with a practiced roll of the arm. “But I’ve got a feeling I’m gonna need that back. Think you can hold it for me?”

“I… yes?” said Nectra, stepping forward.

Zack tossed the hat to the shangmere, who caught it easily. Nectra held it up, examined it, and carefully put it on her head while the cheers of the Sthenites became confused mutters and started the transition into angry hisses.

“This is weird,” she said. “I couldn’t wear this while flying. This would… not stay up, I’d need a pin or something.”

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

“Hmm?”

A bright flash of light lit up the pit and Zack twirled his remaining pistol, hidden under a fold of his coat. A tangy scent of ionization filtered through the air and mixed with the incredible stench of the superheated mud, breathing new life into the sensation for Zack, now alone in the trial pit of the Sthenites. The crowd looked stunned, but, after a few cautious verbalizations of approval, transitioned into a chorus of cheers and screams. Zack shakily rose to his feet, coughed, and looked up.

First, he saw the Suzerain, crossing her scaly arms and baring fangs approvingly. Then he saw Chala’s angry glare.

Episode 159: Trial By Combat

Zack stepped from the preparation cave and into the arena. A circular, rock-festooned pit made of the world’s ruddy soil, coupled with Mandrake’s oppressive sun, created a humid, radiating heat and a cloying odor that made it difficult for him to breathe. The opposite side of the arena wavered in the heat, but Zack assumed it wouldn’t be an issue for most of the combat. Sthenites slithered around the top of the pit, eagerly looking down to witness the first true trial by combat since their leader became the latest Suzerain.

Nectra clambered in from a preparation cave on the opposite side of the pit. She twirled her staff while looking around, saw Zack, and waved cheerfully. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement, and drew his pistols. Nectra took a step deeper into the arena and almost convulsed when she left the shadow covering her edge of the pit. She waited, allowed her eyes to adjust to the brighter light, and finished moving fully into her starting position.

Zack noted the reaction to the light after the shadow. It was stronger, he thought, than his own reaction to the smell, and while he could get used to the ever-constant mephitis of what amounted to damp, baking mud, the shangmere might have more difficulty with transitions between the shade and light thanks to her larger eyes. He’d need to cross all the way to her side of the pit to take advantage of that fact, though.

The susurrus of hissed conversations above subsided and Zack looked up. The cobra-like Suzerain had crawled into position, flanked by two smaller guards wielding spears. She began speaking, repeating phrases in the Sthenite tongue that Zack couldn’t begin to understand, though a few words were becoming recognizable. She continued speaking and waving her arms meaningfully, but without context Zack’s attention quickly drifted to Nectra, who was alternating between the Suzerain and Zack. She pointed at the Suzerain inquisitively, but Zack shrugged, just as lost as she was.

Whatever she was saying, she was reaching a crescendo, and the rest of the Sthenites were muttering and hissing to themselves, quietly at first but quickly getting louder as their leader did. Within moments, her speech was practically being shouted, and her audience was cheering and chanting with it, some even brandishing weapons at the sky, or the Suzerain, or even, Zack noticed, at the competitors in the arena.

Suddenly, the Suzerain cried out and struck an imposing pose, with her fist raised skyward. The crowd grew tense and the hundreds of serpentine eyes focused on the pit, their collective gaze almost having a weight of its own. Zack and Nectra looked at each other, uncertainly.

On the rim of the pit, resting just opposite the Suzerain, a yellow-scaled Sthenite twirled a bone from a recent meal, and struck the gong that had been quietly erected while Zack and Nectra’s eyes had been focused on the Suzerain. The two competitors jumped at the unexpected sound, a quick motion that prompted the crowd to begin cheering. Taking the cue, Nectra jumped into the air and stretched out her wings while Zack carefully took aim with his Purcellian Striker.

***

Captain Ortega let out a long, low whistle. He had envisioned a smaller room, and possibly a platform surrounded with the traditional electro-tethers, or possibly even archaic ropes depending on Harold Zamona’s wrestling preferences. Instead, the room reminded him of a pack-park, with patches of green grass interspersed with ramps, staircases, and spires on the ground, along with floating rings, hovering catwalks, and even a waterfall suspended high above that fed a gentle pond. Rocket-pack and jet-pack enthusiasts would compete on similar fields of play that weren’t half as detailed.

“Pretty picture, I say,” said Zamona. The captain of the Astroguard tore his eyes away from the room and watched the towering herald of the emperor swagger up next to him.

“I’d say so,” said Ortega. “Not quite what I was expecting.”

“Took some time to get it made. The hovering hydromill gave us problems of all sorts. Believe it or not, it was already partially finished when you went and made a fool of yourself in front of Veskid.”

“Lots of jet-pack joy-riders in your conscripts?”

“Keeps the morale high,” said Zamona. “I think you’ll find there’s nowhere in here that you’ll be able to jet to that I can’t get you, so I still don’t know how you expect to survive.”

“I’ll get by. Really going through with this?”

Zamona snapped a gauntleted finger, an action that produced a surprisingly musical chime, and soldiers bearing the logo of the Dyson Empire approached, one carrying the rocket and the other carrying Ortega’s Astroguard-issued blaster. Ortega nodded and began strapping the rocket to the back of his flight suit, hearing the familiar click of the internal motors that held the hardware in place.

“Thanks,” he said, picking up his rifle and checking it for signs of tampering.

“No problem,” said Zamona. “We’ve already started filming.”

Ortega looked up and around the environment. He couldn’t see any cameras, though he knew that hidden or microscopically small cameras didn’t need to be visible, though he didn’t imagine Zamona wanted to skimp on the spectacle.

“We have?”

“Oh, yes. Since you and I walked in. We have any viewers yet?”

Zamona glanced back at the entrance to the park where a small booth held a soldier who checked a readout and gave a thumbs-up.

“Well… glad we have an audience, then,” said Ortega. He looked to the far wall of the park and saw a massive window that revealed the stars beyond. Veskid was just rolling into view as the ship continued its rotation. He smiled, relieved to finally know exactly where in space he was.

“Same here. I didn’t much care for you trickin’ the poor folks of Veskid into thinkin’ that we had a deal. But since I never back down from a fight or back out of a deal, I wanted to make sure it was the best these people could ask for.”

“So, when do we start?”

Harold Zamona’s massive, boulder-sized fist slammed into the side of Ortega’s head, almost too quickly for his flight-suit’s collision-detection to snap the protective helmet into place. The powerful impact sent Ortega flying, rolling through the air and dropping to the ground at the base of the spire.

“Right now!” shouted Zamona.

Episode 136: Interview with an Iceberg

“Don’t stare at his gauntlets.”

Captain Ortega looked over his shoulder at Alsafi and the two laser-toting guards behind her. The hallway outside of Harold Zamona’s door was designed with the elegant simplicity of someone who wanted to intimidate. Most who walked the hallway probably didn’t notice the way that the overhead lights acted as simple guiding lights toward the door, and that the lines of the floor created a similar visual effect. The converging lines on both sides would create a subconscious feeling that the already vaguely-sinister technological hallways were narrowing, getting smaller with every step. The effect was reinforced by the door itself, a large blast door that would have looked more appropriate as an airlock or a hangar gateway, especially when compared to the relatively tame doors that had been present so far in the hallway. Suddenly appearing before a massive door gave the sense that the approacher was getting smaller, even while the hallway was seemingly getting cramped, all without anything changing. Ortega had seen it many times before, and wondered if the Herald had done it on purpose.

“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked. “Does he have disproportionate retribution when people stare at the gauntlets?”

“Oh, no,” said Alsafi. “It’s just rude. Plus I think he’s sensitive about them, between you and me and our two friends here. They can be startling the first time you see them in person.”

The two guards nodded in general agreement.

“Thanks for the heads up, then,” said Ortega.

“No problem!” said Alsafi, tapping a code into the panel by the door, but standing so that Ortega wouldn’t be able to see it. The massive door hissed, clunked, and much of its exterior structure rotated clockwise. The door parted in the middle and the two segments of the door opened into the hallway. Alsafi gently clapped Ortega on the back.

“Have fun in there!” she said, before vanishing from sight. Ortega looked over his shoulder at the two guards.

“Do you have any idea how much it costs every time she does that?”

The two guards shook their heads and one meaningfully pointed her weapon at Captain Ortega. Ortega nodded, turned toward the door, and stepped into the dimly lit hall beyond. Windows on the left side of the hallway provided a quick view of stars, but Ortega wasn’t familiar enough with the Veskid system to use them as a guide to know where he was. The hall ended at another door which slid open as he neared.

The room was arranged like a comfortable conference room. A small table, suitable for a small crowd of people, waited in the center of the room, but only a single chair waited for him on his side. Immediately opposite was Harold Zamona, sitting and smiling patiently.

Harold waved Ortega closer, and Ortega was suddenly struck with just how large this person was. He’d seen Zamona over video feeds and screens before and knew that he would be big and muscular, but the person in front of him was positively giant. It was hard to tell while he sat, but the man must have been at least eight feet tall, if not nine. The arm that was cheerfully waving him to the table was massive, and reminded Ortega of the limbs of certain brutish aliens he’d seen, usually in the bottom of death traps that he was forced to endure. Each arm ended at an enormous gauntlet, one that was thick enough to make his hand seem a third larger than Ortega would guess at based on the size of the arms.

Ortega remembered Alsafi’s words, recovered from his shock, and approached the table to sit.

“Thank you,” said Zamona.

“For showing up here?”

“For saving my life, and the life of everyone on this ship.”

“I didn’t exactly do it alone.”

“No, but you brought the problem to our attention. A smart person would’ve gotten out of here with the chance you had at escaping.”

“Only if escape was the goal the smart person was trying to achieve. I wouldn’t say that I was smart, but I couldn’t let everyone on this ship die. Most of them are under mental manipulation.”

“Not as many as you think.”

“One is too many,” said Ortega. “Even just an emotional push to get someone to do something they want to do is criminal. Punishable by all recognized systems within the Angelor Republic. Thinking otherwise is barbaric.”

“We’ll see if the Angelor Republic agrees with you after it’s part of the Dyson Empire. Our triumph isn’t the result of barbarism, it comes from our Emperor’s technological supremacy.”

“Barbarians are always the first adopters of new technology,” said Ortega. “It’s why they have such an impressive track record. Your empire is still just a fleet of space barbarians committing well-organized acts of piracy and guerrilla warfare.”

Zamona narrowed his eyes and stopped smiling. He steepled his fingers, an action that made his arms take up most of the space on his side of the table.

“I can see we’re done playing nice, then. You should’ve died by now. I killed you twice.”

“No you didn’t.”

“I thought I did. I shot that ship with you and The Soul Survivor, and later I received a transmission from a downed ship in our empire that collected your face and voice. Later we capture you and throw you into a cell. Now, we can analyze the cell and work out how you escaped, and we can also just go over Tan’s logs to see how you got out of his ship’s self destruct sequence. I still don’t know how you and The Soul Survivor escaped from that first meeting, though.”

“Have you found him yet, by the way?”

“Yeah,” said Zamona. “He destroyed a few other ships. Tan’s vessel has been outfitted with some sort of stealth technology. Is he a barbarian too, then?”

“No,” said Ortega. “Doctor Rogers is a genius. An insane one, but a genius. He doesn’t invent out of necessity, he invents on the fly. I might call him a nomad, though, since he’s always on the move. The Emperor’s technology might be able to out pace him, but I don’t think it could ever out innovate him. How did you wind up working or this Dyson fellow, anyway?”

“That’s a long story, Captain. A long, long story that I’m afraid you don’t have time to hear.”

Much earlier, on another world…

Harold Zamona opened the folder and read the information inside. The burning cascade of flaming crystals in the hotel lobby was visible through the conference room’s window, though the sight was less majestic in the more reserved, business-appropriate chamber. He shook his head and leaned back in the reinforced chair that creaked under his weight.

“Seems harsh.”

“You want him gone? This gets him gone.”

Zamona’s head zipped from the document to glare at the woman of orange-flecked stone who stood before him. The Pyrhian almost took a step back, probably not used to speaking to humans who were taller than she was, especially when they were sitting. She recovered quickly and returned the glare.

“Mister Murk is very interested in helping you out, and he sincerely wants to do it without asking any questions. You want the gumshoe out of the way? This’ll get him out of the way.”

“I don’t want him dead. This vine thing looks nasty.”

“It is,” said the Pyrhian. “But it won’t kill him. Keep reading. The later stages of life aren’t as violent, but they’re just as good at their job. It’s how Mister Murk takes care of all of the people who need to disappear that might be useful later. You wouldn’t believe some of the people he’s got in the Underjungles like that.”

“Such as?”

“Such as has-been wrestlers who ask too many questions.”

Zamona paused and looked up from the document. The Pyrhian was glaring, but he could see fear in her eyes. He smiled.

“You’re good at that.”

“At what?”

“The trash talk. Probably needs to come up a lot in your line of work. What’d you say your name was again?”

“Fiamme.”

“Never head of a Pyrhian with a name like that.”

“My fault for picking a human word for a name, then. Does me no good when no human knows it.”

“Why not change it?”

“Hey, I like my name. Would you change yours?”

Zamona shrugged.

“I’m not legally allowed to go by The Iceberg without permission from the appropriate wrestling franchising associations. Don’t know if you’d call that the same thing, though. Speaking of which…”

Fiamme reached into her case and withdrew a dark orange data crystal. She set it onto the table.

“Mister Murk is very, very grateful to have a wrestler of your caliber. Those gauntlets WILL keep you at near-human strength, yes?”

“Yes,” he said, gingerly picking up the crystal with his gauntleted hand. “For now. If I’m using it regularly in fights, though, we could burn through it before the next upgrade’s ready.”

“We’ll try to schedule you so that you won’t have to fight too regularly. While we hammer out some details with your organization, you’ll have to wear a guise other than Iceberg, of course. But we expect that within a month of your first appearance, you could go back.”

“Don’t know if we should do it that soon,” said Zamona. “The secret wrestler approach can draw crowds, get you more money. A well-timed revelation can bring a bigger crowd.”

“Let us worry about that kind of thing. Our cut on Ravelar’s fights are substantial enough that we make sure that they keep the fans coming back for more.”

“Suit yourself,” said Zamon. “And thanks. One less trench coat to worry about, and I start gettin’ back in the ring. It’s win-win.”

“We feel the same way.”

Episode 124: Meeting Renfield

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

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

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

“Wonderful.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello!” he said. “It’s good to mee-”

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

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

“I-”

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

“Is he always this surprised by people?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even so.”

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 120: Trial by Verdict

Zack twirled his Purcellian Striker pistols and scanned the trees around him. He’d waited for more than two hours, and was hoping that he wouldn’t have to wait until the end of the six he’d been given by the Suzerain.

“Should’ve asked Chala for some ice water,” he said.

A distant squawking creature made itself known in the distance.

“I wonder if Chala even has ice on this planet,” he said.

“Good question,” said a voice from above. Zack tensed and started to look up, but not before Nectra dropped onto him from above, slamming into his back and pinning him to the leaf-covered, peaty soil. She twirled her staff triumphantly, and brought it down on top of one of Zack’s arms to keep it from moving the pistol, and one of her clawed feet pinned the other arm. Zack heard a familiar buzz of energy and realized that her staff was likely energized from its contact with him, meaning it had again turned into the Virellium Scythe.

He started to twist his head to look up at the shangmere, but Nectra kicked off his hat and held down his head with her other foot.

“Hello again, Zack,” she said. “You ran off from the cave. It’s a shame you delayed my progress.”

“Nectra, how are you even planning on getting off this world?” Zack asked. “If you kill me, how’ll you get back to Veskid to prove your theory?”

“My theory about Virellium trackers? Well, obviously, we’ll need to take whoever was coming to pick you up. You worked so hard to get to Mandrake, Zack, and a smart guy like you will have a plan to get off again. You probably arranged for a ride. It’s an educated guess, but I feel good about it.”

“Here’s another educated guess for you, then,” said Zack. “You’ve been in contact with The Phantom Matador. What’d you do, fly him all the way down to the planet from Carmen’s asteroid? That must’ve been quite the fall.”

“Oh, I was right about you being smart… yes, he’s been helping me to find you. With my tracker, he’s very capable of figuring out not just where you are but where you’ll be by observing how the signal changes. I can’t condone villainy, of course, but he’d have a huge future as a criminal mastermind if he applied himself.”

“He’s already a criminal,” said Zack. “He’s a stalker and a trespasser, and he also assaulted me with a boulder once. I can see how that last one might not count against him, though, since it seems like the universe has agreed that I’m a fair target.”

“I’m sorry about that,” said Nectra. “But it gets us back on track. Now, I don’t want to go to the trouble of smuggling you off this planet and back to Veskid while you’re dead, but you’ve got a habit of getting away while alive. So… Zack, do I kill you now? How would the DMA do that?”

“I didn’t work with the assassins,” said Zack. “I did the honest jobs. But yes, the assassins would probably kill me now.”

“Oh,” said Nectra, her excited tone suddenly slowing and losing its bright edge. “I see. Yes… well then. I guess this is goodbye, Zack? Zack, I’m… this is embarrassing. I know I just met you yesterday, but I’m really going to miss you.”

“Well, there’s a way other than killing me right now,” said Zack.

“Good!” said Nectra. “I mean… what?”

“I need to know some things first. When the Phantom Matador was using your tracking device, or helping you to use it, or whatever, did he kill anyone?”

Zack listened to Nectra’s breathing. It slowed. The sounds of jungle insects and beasts filled the air.

“I think so,” she said. “I think he used that energy sword of his. He wouldn’t say it directly, but I saw the bodies whenever I left. All he said was that they ‘saw him’ and he ‘needed to get away.’ They might have killed him, Zack.”

“I get that,” said Zack. “And they might’ve. They’re not unreasonable, though. Look, Nectra, I need your help in catching The Phantom Matador.”

“What? But he’s helping me.”

“Right, but he’s killed Sthenites. Nectra, he’s a murderer. Beneath that dark, mysterious persona, The Phantom Matador is a parasite on any society he’s in. I mean, in less than twenty-four hours he became this region’s most notorious murderer, and that was almost pinned on me.”

Zack felt the claws at the back of his neck loosen and lift. He looked over his shoulder and saw Nectra, looking confused.

“He said I should kill you here. He said you’d cause trouble for us if I saved killing you for later.”

“I would,” said Zack. “He’s right about that. But that’s not really the issue, is it? You shouldn’t kill me at all, Nectra. And the Matador’s gotta face justice from the Sthenites. One other issue: these bushes are filled with sthenite warriors. They’re mostly here to make sure I don’t escape… they didn’t believe my story about a winged lady swooping in to hunt me down… but they’re also here for you. Kill me, and they’ll attack you.”

“Zack? You set a trap for me?”

“No, no I set a safety net for myself. The flip side is this: I’m still in the middle of a weird trial thing. Help us catch The Phantom Matador, and I’ll agree to combat against you overseen by the Suzerain of the Sthenites, a combat that the Suzerain declared to be a sufficient conclusion to my trial if you turned out to exist. You win that combat, I’ll be your prisoner. I win, you leave me alone.”

“And if I try to abduct you or kill you now, I lose either way,” said Nectra, sounding crestfallen.

“Well… don’t look at it like that,” said Zack. “I’m the one in a trap here. You could always just fly away. So… help us find The Matador?”

Nectra closed her eyes and took some deep breaths. Soon she opened them again and nodded.

“Sure,” she said. “Let’s find that Phantom.”

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.