Tag Archives: trial

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.

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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 158: Dressing to Kill

Zack wiped the sweat from his brow and looked over the array of daggers, spears, and swords before him, barely suppressing a cough. He could tell from the cloth of woven reeds that these were wrapped in that the Sthenites kept these weapons with care, but none of them truly felt appropriate for the situation.

“And the Purcellian Strikers are definitely out, then?”

“They’re only permissible if your competitor agrees to it,” said Chala. “And if your competitor has a suitably comparable weapon. Nectra doesn’t have a gun.”

“I’m telling you, she doesn’t need one,” said Zack. “Her staff is deadly, and I might die out there otherwise.”

“There are plenty of staves and cudgels here that you could take,” said Chala, gesturing to another rolled up parcel of woven reeds. “I think there’s one not unlike a shillelagh from Earth over there, actually, it might even be superior to her staff, weapon-wise.”

“Her staff can turn into a virellium-powered energy-scythe!”

“So you say,” said Chala, unrolling the new parcel and withdrawing a sturdy looking branch. “For what it’s worth, this is a legendary item that the Sthenites believe to contain magical properties. You won’t need to escape from your hut again to go looking for better weapons.”

“I’d rather use my strikers,” said Zack. “If she has a weapon she’s comfortable with, then I should have one as well. And I didn’t escape.”

“Fine, but pick another weapon anyway in case the Sthenites don’t let you use them. And you might not call it an escape, but when you get out without the guards seeing you I don’t think the Sthenites will know what else to call it.”

Zack sighed and looked over the options. One dagger in particular seemed dangerous enough to deal actual damage while also being simple enough for him to use. It was a hard, red substance not unlike chitin, and bent at the tip so that it was almost a sickle. He picked it up, and felt its weight.

“What can you tell me about this one?”

“It’s made from one of the mandibles of a threzh, a kind of cantankerously territorial plant creature. If it still has any of its poison in it, that could be a useful counter to a fast-moving energy scythe.”

“What’s the poison do?”

“A threzh can use it to slow or weaken its prey, sometimes fully paralyzing a creature for hours to make it easy to drag the prey back out of its territory. The Sthenites would only leave this weapon here if they thought it still had some of its kick, but this isn’t the first ritual duel it’s been available for. It’d probably slow down a person’s metabolism, at least, and make them slower.”

“That might give me an edge where a speed-freak like Nectra’s concerned,” said Zack. “I’ll take it. But I still want to use my blasters.”

“Great,” said Chala. “Hold onto them. I’ll make sure that Chala’s preparations are going well as well. If she’s using her staff, that might give you grounds to use your own weapon of choice. And practice with it a little instead of your pistols, it smells light lightning in here.”

“Wonderful. And I will.”

Chala turned to the door but stopped at the frame.

“So… are you really going to kill Nectra?”

“Maybe,” said Zack. “I don’t want to. I don’t think she wants to kill me either, but she was definitely willing to not too long ago. You’re one of the Sthenites yourself since you endured your own trial, right? Do you know of any such trials by combat ending peacefully?”

“No,” she said, stepping through the door. “Good luck, Gamma.”

***

“You look surprisingly relaxed.”

Nectra’s massive eyes fully opened without, it seemed, any transitional time from being fully closed. Chala mostly succeeded in not flinching as she gestured to the two pillars of stacked rocks in Nectra’s guarded hut. The shangmere herself was hanging upside down, using her feet to clutch the staff that stretched between the miniature towers. Nectra’s mouth stretched into an alarming smile, one almost made less disconcerting by being flipped.

“Thanks!” said Chala. “I’m trying to meditate before killing Gamma.”

“That answers that, then.”

“Answers what?” Chala’s wings opened and beat once, flipping her upright and letting her perch on the staff.

“I wasn’t sure if you were actually planning on killing Zack.”

“I don’t think I have a choice,” said Chala, her smile crashing into a morose frown. “The Sthenites will kill him anyway if I don’t… and while I’m not happy with blood on my hands I have to admit that this was what I wanted to do anyway when I first started hunting him. And sure, Zack said he could help reopen my legal case using evidence gathered here on Mandrake, but if I kill him I wouldn’t need that anyway and now I just wish I hadn’t made friends with him first.”

Nectra stood, stretched out her arms and wings, and fell back. Chala gasped, but realized that the shangmere was falling slower than a human would, and that she was falling onto the bed of reeds that the Sthenites had given Nectra to use when they remanded her to the hut. Chala watched Nectra lie motionless for a few moments before she sighed, rolled onto her side, and pulled one of her wings over her face like a blanket.

“This shouldn’t be so complicated. Or… actually, it should be complicated. I like complicated. I can work with complicated. This shouldn’t be so simple and horrible. The Sthenites have awful customs if this is what they make people do, just awful. If I kill Zack, do you think he’ll be mad at me?”

Chala didn’t mentally stumble over the question, but felt like it was a question that should cause stumbling. She walked to the mat between the rock pillars and knelt by the bat-like alien.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think he’d be mad at you for killing him. He’d probably prefer the alternative, but he understands how delicate the situation is. He’s constructed a situation where a Suzerain might even be able to step in to prevent a trial from being completed. With a different Suzerain who had more support from the different tribes, that might even be a remote possibility.”

Nectra flapped her wing back into place and sat upright.

“I guess we’ll just have to cross that road when we come to it. Thanks for not saying anything about claws earlier.”

“What?”

“When I talked about getting blood on my hands. I’ve used that expression before… sometimes I have humans stop expressions I’m making where I talk about hands, saying I should use claws instead. I love human expressions, though. And that expression involves hands.”

“You don’t exactly have claws, either,” said Chala. “They’re a bit pointier than human hands, but they’re definitely hands.”

“I know, right?” said Nectra. “Though I sorta do if you count my feet.”

“Those aren’t really-”

“Nah, my feet have claws. They’re really good for catching fish.”

“I-”

“Like, amazing. I’m great at catching fish. Fishing for humans is so slow, they just get in boats and wait for ages forgetting that the point is catching fish, thinking that waiting in a boat is the point, and I normally really like how humans do things, but catching fish is supposed to be active. Fly over the water, wait to see the ripples, splash in, and bam! Lunch. And, yes, I know that some humans hunt fish with spears, but there’s still a lot of waiting involved in that even if it’s more proactive. And don’t get me started on humans who fish with nets.”

Chala nodded, following the conversation flow.

“The Sthenites prefer hunting the native fish equivalent with spears. A few tribes use nets. Some just slither into the water to see what they can grab with their bare hands.”

“Ooh, now that’s nice… I couldn’t do that. I don’t see underwater very well if I’m actually under the water.”

“Speaking of nets and spears, though, I’m supposed to ask what sort of weapon you intend to use for the trial?”

Nectra pointed at the staff stretched between the rock pillars over Chala’s head. Chala glanced back up at it.

“Because there are plenty of weapons we can also offer-”

Nectra shook her head and pointed at the staff again.

“My staff can turn into a scythe around Zack. An energy scythe. Why would I use anything else?”

“Are scythes actually good as weaponry?”

“They’re better than good,” said Chala. “They’re awesome and cool as weaponry.”

“But are they capable?”

“Look, I’m using the scythe. Even if for some crazy reason a scythe wasn’t a good weapon, it can also be a staff which is also an amazing weapon, plus Zack is scared to death of this thing. You should see the look on his face whenever I activate it.”

“Zack feels there’s a disparity here, and that he should be permitted to use his pistols if you get to use your staff.”

“That seems fair,” said Nectra.

“For him to have a ranged weapon while you only have-”

“My awesome scythe? Of course it’s fair. I’m a little insulted by this anti-scythe attitude you’ve got.”

“Fair enough,” said Chala. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll take my leave now. Good luck prepping for the fight. Someone will be along shortly to deliver some fruit and… if you’re interested… I can have them include some fish as well.”

“Oh, yes, please,” said Nectra, rising to her feet and leaping back to her perch on the staff. “I’d love to give some of the local food a try.”

Chala nodded and walked out while Nectra clutched the staff with her feet, rolled forward, and resumed her attempts at meditation.

***

“Where is it?”

The Phantom Matador lifted his head and turned to look back, expertly revealing only his eye as Chala entered his hut. The two Sthenite guards rose to a firmer attention and lifted their spears at the sight of the new company, though the humans ignored them. The Matador turned back to resume looking at his cell wall, tapping his foot and creating a gentle clink as the wrought-iron manacle at his leg jingled.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, his sonorous voice echoing through the room, theatrically enhanced by either natural skill, his deceptive psychic abilities, or some quirk of the acoustics of the hut. “I do, however, see that you have my hat and my mask.”

“These are to trade. I give these to you, and you tell me what I need to get it back.”

“I think I agree… but sincerely, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The Oborosian Stone,” said Chala. “The Fact. You broke into my hut and stole it, Starprey.”

“Oh, that was your hut? I’m sorry, I should have known. Knick-knacks from Veskid and articles of clothing not suited for the serpentine form, and you being the only humanoid I’ve seen here apart from Gamma and myself should have made it obvious.”

“Now that you know what it is, how about that deal?”

The Matador tapped his foot again and sighed.

“I would agree, but I can not help you. I don’t have it.”

“Then where did you hide it?”

“I didn’t. The… Oborosian Stone? The Fact wasn’t on my person when I woke. I assumed that, like my hat and mask, it had been taken by Gamma.”

“He didn’t take those,” said Chala. “He’d passed out by the time the Sthenites located him. They removed your hat and mask.”

“Then they have the Fact. Or Gamma does. Or the bat.”

“Nectra.”

“So she told you her name. She may be a brilliant researcher, but she knows nothing of maintaining mystique.”

“She knows it’s childish and accomplishes nothing.”

“It’s an art. I won’t be appreciated in my time. Now… considering that I don’t have what you want, and don’t know where it is, I have no more to offer you. Might I have them back as a matter of courtesy?”

“Why? Zack seemed interested in knowing who you are.”

“You mean he still hasn’t come to see me?” said the Matador, turning to look at Chala. She’d already seen his face when the mask had been removed, but she was still struck by how memorably average he looked. His face didn’t quite match the back of his head, with neither appearing strange except in relation to each other. She considered the possibility that he was using his psychic abilities to confuse something about his appearance in her mind, but dismissed the level of effect it might have.

“No,” she said. “Like I said, he passed out after you did. You woke up before he did. He’s not had time.”

“Not even to gloat?”

“He’s on the run from someone.”

“Nectra, yes, but I thought they were patching things up.”

Chala coughed, not sure what to say to that.

“Wait… are you telling me there’s someone else after him? Even here on Mandrake? That poor man… he’s blessed with an inordinate amount of bad luck.”

“That might be true,” she said. “I don’t know many details myself, only that he’s in a hurry and Nectra’s on his side. He and she will be fighting to the death soon, and then he has to leave.”

“I feel that I’ve missed something,” he said. “Please explain. I still haven’t picked up on the finer points of the language, and I doubt my wardens would be talkative even if I had, but under what circumstances do people on the same side fight to the death?”

“No,” she said. “You don’t need to know anything while you wait for your trial. Which will begin shortly after Zack’s concludes.”

“I see,” he said. “Then we have little more to discuss. Except for… my hat and mask?”

“Why do you need it on a world where I already know what you look like and literally no one else cares?”

“It’s an art form,” he said. “You’ll appreciate it after my time. I’d ask for my sword to complete the picture, but as I understand it I’m being tried as a criminal, so that might not be reasonable.”

Chala narrowed her eyes but cautiously folded the mask and set it into the hat before tossing the wide-brimmed sombrero cordobés to the prisoner. He smiled, bowed his head, and extended the hat forward with his hand as if having just doffed it.

“Many thanks. Even without the sword, I have everything from my Traje de Sombras. I can finally dress to kill.”

Episode 148: Haggling

Zack leaned against a tree until he felt the wave of nausea pass. His throat was scratching like a flea circus pitchman, but he couldn’t cough until he had the Phantom Matador in point blank range of his strikers.

He lifted his head. The clearing was large, and the glowing fire cast long shadows which Zack tried to use as he left the tree line. The Phantom Matador was sitting near the fire, his cape pulled behind him and his hat pulled down in front of his face. He might have been dozing, an ideal situation that Zack wouldn’t count on.

He stepped closer, covering the distance. He checked Nectra’s scanner one last time, and determined that The Phantom Matador was, in fact, right in front of him. No strange psychic projections were hampering the scene.

Zack slipped the tracker into a pocket of his coat and reached for his holsters. The twin Purcellian Striker pistols lifted and aimed at the Matador. He stepped closer. Hey, Mat… that’s what he’d say. Hey, Mat. It’d give the upper hand conversationally.

Zack closed to within five feet of the Matador. A gentle wind was blowing through the clearing, pushing the smoke from the fire to the side.

Zack heard a click from the treeline ahead of him.

The whine of a powerful capacitor charging sounded from the darkness.

Zack panicked and started jumping to the right. Time slowed as a glowing sphere of blue-white energy launched from the darkness. Zack fell on the ground and the blast of energy passed over his head. Zack rolled to a kneeling position and aimed his Strikers at the darkness. He watched and listened carefully as the analytical part of his mind started processing.

“Vodianoi Cannon?” he whispered to himself, watching the trees carefully, and missing the sound of the footsteps behind him.

“Samodiva Cannon,” said a voice. Zack looked over his shoulder and saw a woman in a blue cysuit with a cybernetic reticle over an eye. She held her near-legendary Chernoblaster, keeping it at a point-blank range.

“Fletch?!” he said, instinctively trying to jump back, but tripping over his own feet as he did so.

“The Vodianoi Cannon is built to be submerged under water. The Samodiva Cannon is built to hide in clusters of trees, caves, other dark wilderness locations. Now, I would’ve preferred to use a Jinmenju Snare instead of a Samodiva Cannon… and if we were near water I actually brought a Jorogumo Striker… but you work with what you’ve got!”

Zack’s mind raced. He didn’t know military-grade munitions the way that Fletch did, but there was a definite pattern.

“I don’t… I don’t understand. Fletch, the Samodiva’s not deadly.”

“What if you’d picked up the poor Phantom Matador to use as a human shield?” she said. “I can get his bounty if he’s alive.”

“But… the Jinmenju Snare, that’s just a trapping device, isn’t it?”

“Doesn’t leave much mess to clean up, and doesn’t take away so much evidence that they’ve only got my say so that I finished the job. The DMA’ll award a bounty if there’s no body, but only if you can prove that you caused the death.”

Zack narrowed his eyes.

“That blaster of yours would leave the evidence, though. And I can’t help but notice that I’m still noticin’ things, almost like you hadn’t killed me yet.”

“I haven’t.”

“You’re a professional, Fletch,” he said. “Best in the business. Not that I’m not grateful, but why’re you not finishing me off? What do you want?”

“Make no mistake, I do want to kill you,” said Fletch. “I wanted to kill you before, at Murk’s stronghold in Helix. There were too many other mercenaries crawling around, though. Too much competition. Especially from your friend Igneous.”

Zack slowly rose to his feet, keeping a close eye on the gun.

“You think she’d stop someone from gettin’ to me? She’s not stupid. The DMA’d put a bounty on her head just like on mine if she helped me.”

“She could still injure another assassin and claim it was an attempt to catch you. A moot point, though, as she helped me to find you here on Mandrake. Practically arranged it, even.”

Zack opened his mouth to respond but couldn’t. Fletch paused and watched his face carefully.

“Did she, now?” he said.

“She did. Now, I do plan on killing you, Zack Gamma, the bounty’s only good if you’re dead. But I need some information first, and fortunately there aren’t any other bounty hunters or assassins on this planet who might overhear, assuming he knows what’s good for him.”

“Him?”

“Had some competition when I first got here, but it’s been handled. Ready to tell me what I want to know?”

“Why should I? You’ll kill me anyway.”

“You want a five minute head start?”

“Pass. I’ll take a day’s head start, though.”

“You think I’d let you last a day out there?”

“I think you’ll let me last however long we agree on.”

Fletch paused and, after a moment, lowered the gun to her side.

“Two hours.”

“Twelve hours.”

“Six.”

“Eight.”

“Six, or I kill you right now,” she said. “I want to know, but I don’t want to know that badly.”

“You’re tryin’ to lowball me. We can push this to seven.”

Fletch raised the Chernoblaster.

“Or six,” said Zack. “Six hour head start… and I get the Phantom Matador.”

Fletch lowered her weapon and looked over at the unconscious figure that she’d propped by the fire.

“He’ll just be dead weight while you put distance between yourself and me. And with no way off the planet he’s just going back into my custody after I catch you.”

“You’ll have to pry him away from the Sthenites,” said Zack. “I’m in the middle of a trial, and I’m about out of time, but he’s important to it.”

Fletch looked up to the sky, then back to the Phantom Matador. Her reticle swiveled and focused on Zack while she stared at her sleeping prisoner.

“I suppose six hours would give me time to make some more preparations at the Bake-Kujira.”

“The what?”

“My ship,” said Fletch. “Fine. You’ve got your six hours, and the custody of the Phantom Matador. Congrats on another fourth of a day of life, Zack Gamma. Assuming, of course, that your information is good.”

“Shoot,” said Zack. “Well, I mean… go for it. Ask your questions, I mean.”

“I’ve only got one,” said Fletch. “What did you do to get the DMA to put this bounty on your head?”

Episode 125: The Matter of Facts

Nectra jumped from branch to branch, using her wings and her staff to balance as she spiraled over the obstacles of the jungle floor. Zack, following along, was getting mud in his shoes and manually pushing the thick vines and reeds of the terrain out of his way where he could while slowly climbing over or moving around the trees, fallen logs, and boulders where he couldn’t. Nectra would often vanish while moving ahead, but would always either turn back or wait for Zack to catch up.

“Nectra, you’ve gotta stop moving so fast.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking down. “We’re almost there. I don’t want him to suspect anything.”

“I doubt he will at first. Nectra, do you-”

“Wait… someone’s there, but it’s not him.”

“What?”

Without another word, Nectra jumped from the branch, opened her wings, and left Zack’s field of vision. Zack waited a moment, sighed, and resumed wading through a tangled mesh of reeds. Soon he pushed through and saw a comparatively open patch of jungle. Nectra perched on a branch above, gesturing down quietly at a human who stood with a bow and arrow.

“Chala?”

She turned and looked in Zack’s direction. She smiled, but looked anxious.

“Hello, Zack. I’m sorry, I’ve ruined your trial, I think. Or made it worse.”

“What? What do you mean? How?”

“When you arranged the ploy to find Nectra, you thought this Phantom Matador would be nearby. I decided to find him myself while you were still waiting for her to find you. I circled a lot… but really there are only a few places in this area that someone might comfortably wait. I found him.”

“Why did you do that?” he said.

“From everything they said about him, I guessed that he’d taken something from my forge. And he did. Only it’s not the stockpiled Virellium like I’d hoped, it was… he stole something else.”

“What was it?” asked Nectra.

Chala shouted, pulled her bow up, and shot an arrow straight toward Nectra. Nectra screamed and fell backwards, avoiding the arrow but dropping off her branch. She turned in the air and opened her wings, but not quickly enough to avoid slamming into the peaty soil.

Zack ran to Nectra, but the shangmere was already pushing herself up. She looked at Zack and Chala, smiling sheepishly. Chala, unprepared for the sudden appearance of shangmerian physiology, winced.

“Nectra, are you okay?”

“Sure, Zack,” she said. “Just scraped. Thanks, though. I forget that humans don’t think in three dimensions most of the time. Sorry!”

“Chala, this is Nectra.”

“Good meeting you?” she said. “So I guess your hunter isn’t out to kill you, then?”

“She’s out to clear her name,” said Zack. “And right now, she was helping me to find the Phantom Matador.”

“He was right here,” said Chala. “He left when I shot an arrow at him. Or… he didn’t leave so much as he faded.”

“He did that to you, too?” said Nectra. “I thought it was just me starting to lose it.”

“I think he has a rare psychic ability that lets him cloud people’s minds,” said Zack. “I’m not sure exactly what the extent of the ability is, but he’s had a lot of practice learning when and where to use it. He might not’ve even been in the clearing when you shot the arrow at him, for all we know. I think we need the answer to Nectra’s question, though.”

“Sure,” said Chala. “Sorry about that arrow.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” said Nectra. “What was it that he stole?”

“It was a Fact.”

“A fact?” said Nectra. “Like… a true concept?”

“No, a machine. They’re called Facts.”

“Oh,” said Zack. “Oh! Oh, I see… One of those… one of those things.”

“So, what is it?” asked Nectra. “I’m afraid I still don’t know.”

“It’s short for Artifact,” said Zack. “Bit of an ironic name to give something brand new. I think that was their name when they were new, but that was a century or two ago I think. They didn’t come from the Angelor Republic, though, right? I was never really a history student.”

“No, you’re right,” said Chala. “They came from a rare period of trade and information exchange between Glorien space and the Angelor Republic. They were allegedly brand new devices. We didn’t have any eyes or ears in Glorien space to let us know if they were legitimately new or not, but we had no reason to doubt it.”

“Then why call them Artifacts?” said Nectra. “Doesn’t the word mean something left over or… evidence of something that used to be around?”

“I think the emphasis was more on the word Fact than Artifact,” said Zack. “Artifact might’ve been a nod to them leaving the things around for us before they left and vanished into their own region of space again, though.”

“Right,” said Chala. “In addition to being shorthand for Artifact, the Facts were items that did one definite, specific thing, and did them well.”

“That’s what I never got about it, honestly,” said Zack. “We’ve got all sorts of things that only do one thing.”

“Yes, but most can be programmed to do more,” said Chala.

“Oh!” said Nectra. “So, it’s a hardware issue instead of a software one? Brilliant!”

“What is?” said Zack.

“Well, most devices are multi-purpose, even if they don’t look like it,” said Nectra. “Almost anything with a computer chip, really. Most things humans make use software, and that software can be upgraded or changed so that the computers can do different things, or do the same thing but better. Software takes time and memory, though, and uses resources to load, read, and enact. If something’s all hardware, it just does it automatically without any need to update anything. My Virellium tracker is like that, actually.”

“It’s usually more expensive,” said Chala. “To suit everyone’s needs, it’s easier to make generic computers that can have software instead of making very specific computer components that only do things one way. Plus the obvious problem of being hardware focused is that if a product has a flaw, you can’t just fix it with a software upgrade. If you come up with a better way of doing something, you can’t improve to the latest model without buying an all new system. Still, fans of hardware have a lot of speed and ease of resource management going for them. Glorien space allegedly had more of a hardware base, but generally as an artisanal practice rather than an industrial one.”

“So, what were you doing with one?” said Zack.

Chala took a breath.

“It’s what brought me to Mandrake. I’d learned that one might have been in the possession of an industrialist who came here quite some time ago. His ship never made it off the planet alive, though. I found it in his old ship, but it was broken. I’ve been trying to repair it ever since, and using the Virellium I’ve been gathering to power it whenever I think I’ve got another component working.”

“What’s it look like?” asked Zack.

“The base is like the lower end of an hourglass,” she said. “The glass curves in on itself, though, and isn’t what I’d call… orientable, apart from the copper base beneath it. Above the pinch, it sort of divides into two helically rising planes of glass surrounded by occasional copper plates. All the electronic components connect to the copper. I think the glass is there for conducting.”

“Glass doesn’t conduct electricity, though,” said Zack.

“It’ll conduct vibrations well enough, I bet,” said Nectra.

“Right… so, you’ve never been able to figure out what it does?”

“I’ve got some guesses,” said Chala. “Nothing I’d feel safe publishing and staking a career in anthropology on, even with a stockpile of Virellium to take home.”

“How dense is the Virellium, by the way?” asked Nectra. “I didn’t stop to check it out once I realized Zack was there.”

“You didn’t take any for yourself?” asked Zack.

“No, why would I?” asked Nectra. “Finding you’s always been the important thing here.”

“It’s not purified, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Chala. “It’s mostly tiny amounts bundled up in other substances or intermingled with other energies. I’d say there’s enough for me to retire on, though. It’d probably power a planet for a few weeks.”

“Incredible,” said Zack. “So… this story time’s great, but it doesn’t get us any closer to finding The Phantom Matador. We should pick up the trail again.”

“How?” said Chala. “He could be anywhere by now.”

“We’ll track him down,” said Zack. “Nectra knows where they’ve been crashing. Between my skills and her knowledge and skills, I think we should be fine.”

Nectra smiled, her mouth stretching wide enough to make her teeth apparent to anyone watching. Chala nodded.

“Okay,” Chala said. “Okay, good plan. I’ll pitch in, too. You’re going to need my knowledge of the terrain.”

“Can we take it, though” asked Nectra. “You live with these snake people, right? And Zack couldn’t take their help before, when he and I came here. It’s part of his trial or something, right?”

Zack rolled his eyes.

“I think catching the Phantom Matador before he causes more harm trumps that, Nectra,” he said.

“Actually… no, she’s right,” said Chala.

“What?”

“Seriously, Zack,” said Chala. “If you were a fellow Sthenite, I could probably help you to at least track him down without anyone caring much. But the Suzerain’s going to have to explain you very well to the other tribal leaders who don’t like us. Two humans helping each other on trials breaks too many rules for her to smooth over without ordering your execution. You’ll be fine without me.”

Zack cupped his hand over his face and thought. Nectra curiously stepped in front of him to take a look before she looked to Chala questioningly.

“You’re right,” he said, finally. “Which way’s your forge from here?”

“Northwest,” said Chala, pointing.

Zack looked up and followed Chala’s finger. He nodded.

“Come on, Nectra. Wish us luck, Chala.”

He turned to move through the jungle again, and Nectra spread her wings to leap into the trees. Chala waved to the departing shangmere and human as they vanished from view.

“Good luck, Tzak,” she said.

Episode 110: Delicious Flaws

The cave was dark.

He had taken for granted the fact that he was descending. It was a reliable sensation of motion in a lightless environment, and along with the scent of damp stones and soil and the refreshing coolness of the air it was just a part of the backdrop for the trials he expected to start at any moment. What he wasn’t expecting was for the descent to stop so abruptly.

He shifted his gravity to avoid teetering over the edge, and adjusted his grip on the vines holding his platform. Did the vines stop lowering because there was no more vine to lower, or because the platform had reached solid ground? It felt like the ground. He tried rocking back and forth, but the platform didn’t sway beneath him. He carefully moved his hands up and down the vines, and felt the faintest hint of slack. He nervously reached down from the platform and felt solid stone.

Zack took more steadying breaths and cautiously stepped off the platform. He reflexively clutched his hand, but remembered that he didn’t have his lumisphere anymore.

“Where’d I put that?” he muttered, checking all of the pockets of his coat. He needed to start carrying actual light sources with him.

Except the light was dangerous, yes? The darkness was confusing but safe, while the light was illuminating for… whatever was in the darkness. That’s why someone told him not to use the lumisphere too often. Without the lumisphere there would, at least, be no risk of overuse.

“Hello?” he said, taking a careful step forward. “I’m looking for some sort of… trial? People who… don’t speak my language. Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala? Am I saying that right? …do tsaya and tsara mean different things, or are they different forms of the same word?”

A rustling came from the darkness in front of him. Soft hissing? Feathers ruffling? Shifting air pressure from an elevator closing on poor terms?

An electric hum sounded as a bright green crescent of light unfolded in the air in front of him. Zack stared at it, not sure why it looked so familiar. When it danced through the air, the way it moved reminded him of an old image of the Grim Reaper he saw a long time ago. Suddenly the light of the arc increased and he saw the manic smile face of Nectra, the shangmere assassin, illuminated by the light of scythe. Her wings spread and she seemed to surge through the air toward him, and Zack jumped out of the way. As Nectra drew nearer, he realized that she looked stranger than normal. Scales covered her face and her wings were graced with feathers, making them appear more like a bird’s than a bat’s.

The scythe vanished, and the light went with it.

“Nectra?”

“You are hunted,” said a voice behind him. Zack turned as his eyes adjusted. A dimmer light coming from somewhere above illuminated something that looked like a Sthenite but with vibrantly colored scales, fewer feathers, and strange spikes and ridges protruding from its skull.

“You speak English?”

“No,” said the creature. “But you can understand me right now. I should learn English, though. It appears to be the language of choice for Veskid’s children.”

“It’s a trade language,” said Zack. “Did I just see what I thought I saw?”

“An image taken from your mind. An assassin, Nectra. She was clearest, but colored by recent events. You are anxious about how the Sthenites will treat you… but you hold a deeper fear of being discovered.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t use Vox Cul-Dar or Murk. Or the… other one. The really scary one. …Fletch. She’s the DMA’s best.”

“By which you mean most skilled. Already I am learning some of the curiosities of English. Yes, there are many you fear discovering you. And many of them carry more weight than Nectra. But discovery, capture, loss of life… these are your strongest fears, but not your deepest. The one you saw tugs at your deepest fear as well.”

“Lady… sir?”

“Lady.”

“Lady, if you think I’m afraid of anything more than being caught by those people-”

“Do not presume to know your own psyche, just as a man who has never seen a mirror believes he knows his own face by the touch of his hands. So far we are still in the realm of fears to which you can give name. I would not be so cruel as to show you your greatest fears, the wordless terrors and designs that rise formless in the back of your mind. There are emotions you fear voicing and that your species has never defined, as well as racial memories of terror that go back a long way… I wonder what put them there? Charlotte had many of them as well.”

“Charlotte?”

The feathered snake creature tilted its head and a trill rolled in the back of its throat. She threw her head back and, despite the visual disconnect, Zack heard the sound of laughter.

“What? I don’t know any Charlotte.”

“The one you call Chala. It is more like the name of the Sthenites, and so she took it for her own before joining them.”

“Weird name for a human. Wonder why she didn’t tell me.”

“Hmm… dare I yield to temptation? There are so many ways to go… you already knew her name.”

“You sure about that? She’s not had long to tell me, you know.”

“And yet she has. It came up quickly. Close to your meeting with… hmm… the Haktorash.”

“Wait, the… giant worm thing? The Phantom Judge?”

“Yes…”

“Say, do you know if there’s more than one of those things? Or if there are a lot? Apparently there’s some debate about that.”

“I do know.”

“Would you tell me?”

“Would it matter? After you leave here, you will learn about the fungal spores that cause mild hallucinations in these caves. Not strong enough to cause something like me, but strong enough that you will always wonder if I was all your imagination.”

“So… are you my imagination?”

“No,” she said. “But I wish you good fortune in your endeavors to believe my claim later. For now I am the overseer of your trials. We must see if you are worthy of walking with the Sthenites.”

“Even though they don’t walk?”

“Ah… yes. Your language again… ‘trips’ me. So many delicious flaws… like the ridges and knobs on a log in a forest.”

“Yeah, sure. Look, for what it’s worth… I’ve got a feeling honesty’s important here. I don’t plan on being one of the Sthenites. I’m leaving as soon as my friend comes back for me.”

“Your friend may be delayed, though… she will need a way to land other than her asteroid.”

“Oh,” said Zack. “Right. …yeah, I’d… missed that.”

“So had she. And she has already encountered some troubles. Hmm… She guards this world, but not for the world’s sake. Only for yours. Friendship is admirable, as is your honesty. But neither are factors. The trial tests your worth, not your intent. And your worth shall, in fact, be tested.”