Tag Archives: serial adventure

Episode 47: The Helix Double-Cross

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

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

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

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

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

Vox smirked.

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

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

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

“You know that’s a lie,” said Zack.

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

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

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

“Now, Zack…” Vox started.

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

“Is he dead?”

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

“Did you want to?” asked Hobbar.

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

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

“Great,” said Zack. “Lead the way.”

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

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

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

“Where are you going?” asked Chip.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is there a hot tub in the van?”

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

“And it’s got Igneous in it.”

“Igneous?” asked Carmen.

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

Carmen nodded. Hobbar returned, grinning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Greater wisdom may be yours if-”

“Quiet!” said Vox.

“Your car has been-”

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he steal something else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

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Episode 45: Heat Of The Moment

Zack peered around the corner and watched Murk’s two stone men rush at Igneous, and watched Igneous grab the arm of the closest one, twisting its arm and spinning it about to act as a human shield, an act that prevented the second from tackling her. Zack winced and pulled his head back around the corner. Chip and Hobbar stood right behind him, looking worried. Zack wasn’t sure why, but seeing the hacker unsettled made him happy.

“Do you think she’ll be able to handle them?”

“If none of the humans or Murk join the fight, absolutely,” said Zack. “They’ve got a numbers advantage, but she’s got the kind of experience that’d put a drill sergeant’s boot camp out of business for five years if it could be bottled and sold to new recruits. Murk and company’ll be coming around this corner any moment now. Does this other hallway have any exits?”

“I don’t know,” said Chip.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I really don’t know! I was here once, and I went straight from those elevators to the cells and back.”

“We need to move, and now,” said Hobbar, looking around the corner. “I don’t think we’ll be able to get those guys into the cells like we did with the guy downstairs.”

“Right,” said Zack. “This way, Chip. If I’m lucky, you’ll make it out of here in one piece.”

***

Igneous watched the human guards rushing around the corner, and hoped that Zack would be able to handle everything coming his way. She grabbed the fist of one of her assailants to block his strike, and spun him into the other, causing the two to crash into the wall. She noticed that Jen was crawling away from the combat, toward the elevator behind Murk. Igneous was already starting to breathe heavily, and the orange and red glow from behind her eyes and the cracks in her skin increased along with her breathing. These two had clearly never practiced combat as a discipline, and lacked the field experience that might make up for it, but if they were smart about it they might be able to outlast her. The two regained their feet, faster than Igneous had hoped for, but unsteadily enough that she felt she still had a chance.

“I don’t have to handle this myself, do I?” asked Murk, flowing closer to the combat, growing slimmer and taller as he neared. “With what I pay the two of you, I’d hope that you could incapacitate a single mercenary without requiring my assistance.”

“Try it,” said Igneous, keeping an eye on the two rock men as they tried to circle her. “These two’ve at least picked up a few brawling techniques from the back alleys, but from what I remember you don’t even have that.”

“My people don’t need to learn to fight,” said Murk. “To touch us is to feel our wrath, and to engage us is to take the first step toward being enveloped.”

“Then all those combat classes I took when I was your age must not have given me any advantages over the years,” said Igneous. “Clearly, I don’t know what I’m doing out here.”

One of the rock men lunged, and Igneous grabbed it, using her attacker’s momentum and her own raw strength to launch the him into the opponent on her other side. The two hit the ground and looked up in time to see the cloudy expression intensify on Murk’s face.

“Fine, then,” said Murk. “I’ll drown you, and errode you away, and leave whatever might remain as a warning to future DMA members who think they can charge into my home or operate in Helix without my say so.”

***

Fletch lifted the entry hatch of the elevator and dropped into its cab. A magnetic key unscrewed the maintenance panel and allowed her to disable the elevator’s chime with the pull of a single wire. A button push later and the door silently slid open.

She witnessed Murk, the undisputed ruler of Helix’s criminal underworld, forming into a wall of purple and blue liquid, a liquid that almost prevented her from seeing Igneous on the other side. The wall rushed and rolled at Igneous like a wave, one designed to flow upon and easily entrap anything it encountered.

Fletch calculated the value of Igneous to her endeavors and relative use to DMA projects that involved her, and the worth of Murk. She reached for a pistol at her tech suit’s belt, one loaded with one of the two doses of Teles. She stopped reaching for it when the wall touched Igneous, sizzled, and recoiled.

Murk reformed into a more familiar version of himself, and came as close as he could to falling onto his back in surprise.

“How are you that hot?” he asked. “How… how are you alive? You should have either died or moved on to your metamorphosis by now!”

“Funny thing about all that combat studying I did,” said Igneous. “It taught me a few things about balance. Physical, emotional, mental… you’re right that I’m well overdue for your average Pyrhian, but I’ve got more than enough fight in me to burn you away. Or evaporate you. Whatever it is you do.”

Murk washed backward, toward the elevator.

“Now, you keep your hands off me.”

“Why?” asked Igneous. “I thought to touch you was to feel your wrath. Will your wrath not keep you cool? Hey, at least your guards here don’t seem to mind the heat. I should probably thank them, really, for the warm up before you entered the ring. What say you call them off, and the guards chasing Gamma, and I won’t finish the job.”

Murk took a moment and nodded to the two guards. They regained their feet slowly. Igneous looked beyond Murk and saw Jen sitting in front of one elevator and Fletch of all people stepping out of another.

“Sounds like you found your friend,” said Fletch. “Glad to hear that I came to the right building. When I saw the wind prophet, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to piece together the location properly.”

“I was worried that’d happen,” said Igneous.

“Don’t be too sad,” said Fletch. “You may still get your Teles if I find Gamma.”

Murk stared at the new intruder, not sure what was happening. Fletch glared at him when she noticed.

“I think my stony friend just told you to call your guards off from pursuing Zack Gamma. Get on that.”

Episode 35: Breakout

Carmen visualized the security panel as clearly as she could after the brief look at it that she had when the door’s grate opened. She could feel the rock, and to a lesser extent anything that the rock was touching, but she had to hope that her memory of the buttons and controls on the panel were right where she remembered them. She mentally lifted the rock and punched it into the panel again, hearing the shouts of the two on the other side as they realized what was happening.

“Come on, I know the release button was around there somewhere…”

She hammered the rock into the panel, moving it slightly each time, hearing the frightened footfalls of the pair in the hallway rushing nearer. Just as the two arrived, Carmen propelled the rock into the control panel one last time and heard a click from her door.

“Ha!”

Carmen pushed her way through the door, not waiting for it to gently swing open. The door collided with Rillem, knocking him back into the rushing Jen and causing both of them to fall to the floor. Carmen twisted her hand back and the three stones spun back to her like a yoyo, two from her former cell and one from the Door Release button on the control panel.

Carmen picked a direction… the one away from the two on the floor… and ran. A staircase rose from the hallway, and Carmen took three steps at a time, leaving the sight of Jen and Rillem before they even made it back to their feet. She heard them shouting, and laughed. No one could catch up to her once it became a race.

At the top of the staircase, a dark alcove opened into another hall, stretching off in either direction. Carmen paused for just a second, considering both.

“Go to the left,” said a sonorous voice in the darkness.

Carmen spun and stared into the shadows. After a moment, she could just make out a figure dressed in black, wearing a red mask and a wide-brimmed hat with red lining. The Phantom Matador.

“You!”

“I was alerted to your plight by an associate,” said the Matador. “I told him you would not need my assistance, but felt it best to check on you myself. I’m so happy to see…”

Carmen leapt at the Matador, furious. He easily sidestepped her, twisting in the shadows with an unnatural speed.

“This is not a time for us to dance,” he said. “This is a time for you to escape these fiends.”

“I’d rather take you out and get captured again. And they’re not dances, they’re races! I don’t need a gatecrasher telling me what kind of sport I’m in!”

“We are all involved in a great dance, though, are we not? Life growing, developing on rocks that spin around stars in other people’s skies, in a dance that-”

Carmen jumped at the Matador again, and again he sidestepped.

“Stand still!”

“I hear her!” shouted a voice from below. Carmen looked down the stairs and heard the thundering steps of Jen and Rillem nearing. She looked back at the Phantom, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Carmen scowled and stepped through the door, looking to the right and left. Wherever he’d gone, he’d moved quickly and quietly. Carmen considered both of the routes of escape, considering the Matador’s words.

Carmen ran to the right.

Episode 31: The Frozen Goblet

“Any luck yet?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not very hungry.”

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

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

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

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

“Spinewaster?”

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

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

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

Ortega raised an eyebrow.

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

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

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

“No?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he have nothing else you valued?”

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

“Not just any glass would do, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 24: Liquid Life

Captain Ortega watched Ensign Trell filling the crystal carafe with chilled water from the ship’s hydromill. Calen had ordered him shackled to the door on the opposite side of the ship’s medical bay. He had agreed to it on the condition that Doctor Rogers’ robotic body be similarly shackled to the medical chamber’s single bed.

The medical chamber was a small room, and built with the assumption that only one of the ship’s standard set of two crew members would be injured at a time, since any disaster large enough to incapacitate two Morcalan’s at once would probably be severe enough that everyone on the ship would probably be dead anyway. Ortega wasn’t close enough to the bed to interfere with the procedings, but he was close enough to see that Trell had enough sense to shackle Doctor Rogers’ body more securely than he had been.

“Is it true that the two of you are destined foes?”

“Excuse me?” said Ortega, turning from Doctor Rogers’ body. Ensign Trell was standing away from the robotic shell, holding the carafe.

“Destined foes,” said Trell. “It’s… I don’t know if other humans have a word for it. An enemy that you can share your life with. A foe who’s destiny is so entwined with yours that you can rely on their presence more than you can count on your closest friends.”

“I wouldn’t say that, no,” said Ortega. “Though it is true that Rogers is a greater repeat offender than any other I’ve arrested. I’ve discovered his plots dozens of times.”

Trell nodded, looking at the metal body on the bed.

“So you’ve… never hated someone so much that you can’t imagine your life without them?”

Ortega laughed and shook his head.

“No, no I can’t say that I have. I’ve never heard of that before.”

“So it’s true, then,” she said. “I thought it was just xenophobia, or maybe planetary pride.”

“What’s true?”

“The emotions of Morcalans are said to run deeper and fiercer than that of any other human,” said Trell. “Great poets speak of how our love and hate are stronger, and how our laughter and tears have more meaning and purpose. Other humans experience emotions, but we live them.”

“I don’t think that’s true, actually,” said Ortega. “I never met a human who didn’t have great emotions. Some just don’t express them. I will say, though, that your people do seem to live more… theatrical lives.”

“Only a great fool mistakes our lives for theater,” said Captain Calen from the door, stepping around Ortega as she entered the room. “We’re not actors on a screen, going through our daily motions. You get enough of that from other societies. I’ve set our course through the Egression Belt. With luck we’ll avoid attention. There aren’t enough asteroids to cause a steady cover… there aren’t even enough to cause any real danger, I’m sad to say. But I found three rocks large enough and with trajectories steady enough that we shouldn’t be seen even if the Dyson Forces look for us. Not that they’ll have much reason to.”

“I’m ready to revive The Soul Survivor on your order, captain,” said Trell.

“I still say this is a horrible idea,” said Ortega. “It’s a move of desperation that will add to our problems instead of alleviating them.”

“Captain Ortega, you are my insurance against that,” said Calen. “Your people may live lives bereft of the great antagonisms known to mine, but you still represent a great familiarity with this monster. If anyone can spot the Survivor’s deception, it will be you. Now, will I have your cooperation or will I have your tongue to keep you from speaking up further? This chamber is capable of acquiring either, and it’s your choice which it will be.”

Ortega recognized the look of determination in Calen’s eyes. It was a look he had seen… and, he was sure, a look he had displayed…whenever the final point of desperation had been reached with an uncooperative crew member. Knowing the reputations of the Morcalan people, he was sure that the threat wasn’t empty. He knew it was a bad idea, but it was going to happen no matter what he said or did.

He opened his mouth to agree, but Calen had already seen it in his eyes. She turned toward Trell.

“I’m ready,” said Calen. “My Maelstrom Ray is charged, and I’ve not faced nearly enough death today. Pour the water into his dome, and wake this monster. Be he robot or soul, he lives again on our ship!”

Trell tipped the crystal carafe into a hydraulic opening at the robot’s shoulder. She took the container, moist with condensation, back to the hydromill as Ortega heard the all-too familiar sound of the machine beginning to pump the cold fluid. Slowly, the dome at the top of the robot begin to fill with water as Trell filled the caraffe a second time. She poured the water into the machine again and began to return to the hydromill.

“That should be enough,” said Ortega.

Calen glared at Ortega who shrugged.

“It doesn’t take as much water as it looks like, and it doesn’t need to be full for him to be at full capacity. Believe me, you’ve got more than enough in there already.”

Trell looked at Calen, who eventually nodded. She set the carafe onto a medical counter as more and more water began to pump into the dome. In less than a minute, the noise from the hydraulics changed and the water beneath the dome began to churn.

The robotic body lurched forward with a speed that seemed impossible given its bulky frame, but the restraints on the medical bed held Doctor Rogers in place. After struggling for a few moments, he settled down. Even without eyes, Ortega could tell that Doctor Rogers was staring at him.

“Am I addressing The Soul Survivor?” asked Captain Calen. “Are you awake?”

Ortega heard the crackle of speakers activating within the robotic body. A cheerful, likeable voice crackled to life, one that Ortega could tell had been selected to make Doctor Rogers appear reasonable and nonthreatening.

“Yes, I’m awake, thank you!” said Doctor Rogers. “I see you’ve got Captain Ortega as well. Do we have you to thank for rescuing us?”

“You and the Captain broke onto my ship,” she said. “We decided not to cast you out into the void again.”

“Deciding to go with a friendly Alto instead of your usual commanding Barritone, Rogers?” asked Ortega. “It’s an interesting voice that you’ve picked for yourself.”

“I’m glad you like it,” said Rogers. “Am I to assume that we’re going to be taken somewhere secure? Or at least, somewhere on the way that you can drop us off?”

“You’re going to be helping us,” said Calen. “Emperor Dyson’s forces have conquered Morcalan space and are planning to move on from here very soon. We need your legendary mind to formulate a scheme capable of retaking the entire system before he becomes too well entrenched.”

“That’s a tall order,” said Rogers. “The strength of Dyson’s forces are traditionally defensive.”

“That’s what I told them,” said Ortega.

“Did you also tell them that Dyson’s forces tend to provide their own superstructure over societies, leaving the preexisting cultures and infrastructures largely in place?”

“No,” said Ortega. “How is that relevant?”

“It means that for all of the would-be Emperor’s strengths, he fails at integration and assimilation. …or succeeds at it, depending on your point of view. Alien technologies that don’t mesh with his own miraculous wonders are not useful on his timescale. He’s trying to conquer as much as he can before he’s noticed, and then as much as he can before he’s stopped. Most of the circles I listen to are of the opinion that after the war ends, business will resume as normal.”

“You haven’t made any contingency plans for him?” asked Trell.

“I can operate in a post-Dyson society just as easily as in a pre-Dyson society. And I doubt that I’ll need to… in my professional opinion as a working megalomanic, he lacks staying power. He’ll have to rely on preexisting soldiers and police forces to maintain his order. I don’t know how many non-automated troops he actually has in his army, but it can’t be nearly as many as it appears to be. It’s a well executed ruse, but a ruse is all it is. Hmm… Captain, it’s wonderful that you’ve added extra security measures on top of the standard Morcalan military security suite, but they don’t add much. Well, not much to me.”

“What?” asked Calen.

“He’s trying to access the ship’s network!” shouted Ortega. “Shut down the network!”

Trell spun in place and reached the nearest terminal. Captain Calen simiply activated her Maelstrom Ray. The mighty weapon launched a barrage of tightly focused plasma, electricity and light, impacting Rogers’ body. The robotics and hydraulics sputtered and sizzled before a painful noise heralded the final, grinding halt of the essential moving parts within the form. Most of the water in the dome-shaped helmet vaporized. The dome itself cracked and water spilled out of it, onto the floor.

“I apologize for killing your great enemy, Captain Ortega,” said Calen. “That right should have been yours. Still, I’m glad we attempted to deal with this devil. A weak one though he may have been.”

“He’s not dead,” said Ortega. “You just broke his dome.”

“He needs the dome to live,” said Calen. “And judging by the sound of it, his internal robotics suffered soundly.”

“This isn’t his first body,” said Ortega. “He can transfer. And even if he couldn’t… his bodies tend to be miracles of engineering. The last three bodies he’s used could repair themselves even after facing severe mechanical failures. The last one replaced the reinforced glass of his dome with a sort of shatter-resistant, self-repairing crystal. I imagine the dome’s already regrowing if this body’s anything like the last one.”

“Are you saying that he lives again and again as long as he eventually repairs and gets moisture into that dome?” asked Calen. “And he might well attack the ship’s network as soon as he comes back online. Trell, let’s take Captain Ortega’s advice and keep his dome free of any contaminating moisture for the rest of this escapade.”

“Yes, Captain,” said Trell, though she didn’t move from her position at the terminal. She tapped the screen and the keyboard curiously, trying to work through something strange.

“Is there a problem, Trell? This corpse won’t move itself.”

“Sorry, Captain,” she said. “The computer is reacting strangely. Any functions that require my clearance are denying me access.”

“We can reset your clearance after we make sure the ghost is buried and not coming back, Ensign.”

“I think it’s too late for that, Captain,” said Ortega. Calen turned to yell at the Astroguard captain but stopped when she saw him. He looked like he was on a battlefield instead of chained to a door. His eyes were quickly covering the room, like a tactician reevaluating a situation.

“What are you getting at?” she asked.

The loudspeakers in the room crackled to life and Ortega tensed.

“He’s already worked out my move,” said the voice of Doctor Rogers, speaking in the richer tones that Ortega knew so well. The speakers of the ship crackled as the voice adjusted to account for unexpected differences in the wiring and continued. “Captain Ortega is a great fool, but his experience on a battlefield is second to none! He knew I was already attacking the ship’s network, and that I had already cracked the security. He knew that I would not have announced such a thing unless it was almost certainly too late for you. This Morcalan Scuttler, Captain, is an ideal vessel for myself. Everything seems to be designed for rerouting, custom repairs, and cross-system cooperation. The water system on this ship was configurable enough that my autonomous virus was able to fashion a crude imitation of my usual robotic form. Not just a primitive copy of my mind, Captain, but my soul itself will live within your ship… which, ultimately, has become my ship.”

“Access Code Toten Toten Gamma Seventeen!” shouted Calen.

“Access Denied, Captain,” said the voice of Doctor Rogers. “I’ve been working in the Morcalan system long enough to know that I needed to disable the self destruct functionality before I did anything else. You people love a dramatic death more than life itself!”

“You’re delusional, Rogers,” said Ortega. “There’s nothing in the water systems that can hold your mind. Something about your software allows a complete transference of your mind. It’s a miracle of software and technology at work, but it would have functioned without changing the ship’s water system. And there’s no way that you’ll keep hold of this ship for long.”

“The science behind the transference of my life force would, of couse, be difficult to explain to one such as you,” said Rogers. “Perhaps I could begin if you sat through a number of lectures I have on mathematics, biology, physics, and psychology first to give you the grounding necessary to understand my work. Unfortunately, you don’t have the time.”

The ship’s artificial gravity ceased functioning, heralded only by the minor sensation of nausea that accompanied the alterations of gravity wells. The lights in the room flickered off, leaving only inadequette emergency lights. And finally, the gentle sound of the air system running in the background went silent.

Episode 17: Imprisoning Pull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?” asked Zack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right,” said Carmen. “Fix it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” said Zack. “Like what?”

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

“So what are-“

“Shhhh!” said Carmen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” asked Zack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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