Tag Archives: Veskid

Episode 166: Velocity

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

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

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

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 In a matter of seconds, the wild, erratic spinning had been replaced by a gentle tumble that oriented him along the exterior of the Dyson vessel and matched its general velocity, though if it activated its engines to move anywhere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

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 163: The Rocketpark Screwjob

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Couldn’t tell you.”

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

“Not flying away? Rethought surrender?”

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

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

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

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

“Wait-”

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

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

Episode 151: A Truth Recalled

Officer Tacara watched the light show in the night sky above Helix. She’d volunteered for extra shifts ever since the Dyson invasion forces began harassing Veskid’s military which had been completely taken by surprise but had mustered itself well. The explosions of ships in the sky were few enough and nearly all of the debris that might fall from the sky would burn up in either the atmosphere or the protective shield that Helix could generate, but the sight put the city on edge. Keeping her car hovering above the buildings near the highest portions of Beta Street, she was both ready for emergency calls and in a better position to see the battles in the sky when they came near enough, views more impressive than what the news would show if she stayed at home.

With a burst of white noise, her communications channel opened.

“Come in, Tacara.”

“Tacara here. View looking good on Alpha Street, Carlu?”

“It’s stellar. Hey, we just broke up a few people helping themselves to some discounts at some stores that closed early because of the light show. There were some people there outside of the usual suspects. You see anyone running around with special operations gear?”

“Can’t say that I have,” said Tacara. “You’re saying that the Veskid military’s getting in on the looting? In Helix?”

“No, the uniforms were different. They had that half-eye logo from the commercial.”

“You think you saw Dyson troops on the ground?”

“It looked like ‘em.”

“You probably just saw a different logo. Or maybe there are some people in Helix taking the Dyson emblem as a mark to rally behind, or to make them harder to identify later.”

“You think street gangs are getting their hands on military grade special operations gear?”

“No, but I think that between Helix and Veskid City we’ll have scores, literal scores, of lone wolves who’ve all individually acquired that sort of thing.”

“All righty. I’m just tryin’ to make sure justice is done, is all.”

“You’re one of the good ones, Carlu. Stay safe out there.”

Carlu’s end of the line went silent. Tacara looked into the sky and saw three pinprick explosions, like miniature firecrackers popping overhead. She reopened the channel.

“Carlu?”

“Yeah?”

“What was that about justice?”

“Makin’ sure it’s done?”

“Yeah, that.”

“Just seems like we should try to find the guilty parties here. And, hey, it’s probably not this Dyson guy, but if it is…”

“Right,” she said. “Seems unlikely because no ships have landed… be sure to call it in.”

“I did, with the main report.”

“Call it in as its own report. All the details.”

“Why?”

“Something a Pyrhian air man told me. Probably nothing. But… well, the Dyson Empire managed to get their ships into our system without passing through any surrounding territories. If they could move big ships… well…”

“You think they could move individual people down to a planet?”

“I don’t think so, but there’ve been reports of some civilizations cracking that problem. And some individuals like The Soul Survivor, on occasion. Then there’s things like the Void Pilgrim.”

“Heh. Tacara, you believe in the Void Pilgrim? ‘Void Pilgrim yet flies’ and all that?”

“I… no, but I won’t rule it out. Especially if you’re seeing Dyson troops on the ground.”

Episode 144: Commercial Interruption

“Attention, people of Veskid, we apologize for this interruption, brought to you by your new leader, Emperor Dyson!”

The announcer’s voice blared over most visual or audio entertainment and information devices on the planet. Those who benefited from the visual feed saw the emblem of the Dyson Empire, the pointed half-oval on its side with a dot floating in the middle, an image resembling half an eye. The oval spun on an invisible axis while the dot remained stationary until the announcer finished speaking.

The image faded to a dimly lit studio. Harold Zamona sat at a desk with a glowing pattern of lights behind him. He smiled and waved to the camera.

“I apologize for this interruption, everyone on Veskid. I thought it best to let you know what’s been happening since our invasion began. Your government has been fighting a good fight, considering they were taken off guard… but this is not a militaristic world. You were in a safe and unreachable part of the Angelor Republic, far from the fringes. Unfortunately, your spatial position led to defenses that were not prepared for the latest advances in Dyson technology.”

The lights behind Zamona shifted, creating a holographic screen that revealed a star chart. As the Emperor’s Herald spoke, a sequence of stars were circled, and lines drawn between the circled stars.

“Harnessing the power of several specific stars at several specific star systems, our emperor was able to devise an amazing leap in teleportation technology. Long-distance teleportation without a receiving gate precise enough to move an armada far, far beyond where it could go with traditional methods of space travel.”

An arrow zipped from the final star on the chart, the star of the Morcalan system. The arrow arced over a vast stretch of space as the map pulled back enough to reveal the star of the Veskid system.

“Understand that we’ve been playing with the kid gloves on. We don’t want to destroy anything more than we have to. We’re not looking to shake up your lives too much, or for a tribute that would tax your already shaky economy. We don’t want to use up your military and police forces dealing with us when you have local problems to worry about. Instead, I’ve sent a short list with some very, very simple demands to your current leaders. I won’t go into the details about those demands, I’ll let the current management decide how much of that they’re comfortable sharing. For right now, I’d encourage you to let your voices be heard, and let the old order know that Emperor Dyson’s here to stay. And just in case you’re not convinced that we have the follow through, here’s someone who might be able to convince you. You’re on, Ortega.”

The screen split, revealing Captain Ortega standing on a podium, presumably in a different location. Not in his regular Astroguard flight suit, he appeared nearly half a foot taller but with a greater fluidity of movement thanks to the Dyson Empire brig uniforms. He looked at the screen, sighed, and waved to his assumed audience.

“Hello, Veskid! I’m Captain Andrew Ortega of the Astroguard. And, yes, I’m currently the captive of the Dyson Empire. I have been asked to confirm that they do, in fact, have technological and militaristic capabilities that are more than a match for Veskid under typical battle conditions. Their request for surrender is not an unreasonable one.”

On the other side of the screen, Harold Zamona nodded, smiled, and shifted in his seat.

“I have also witnessed strong evidence of possible war crimes being committed. The Dyson Empire employs mind-altering tactics when it comes to building their forces, leading to cybernetically persuaded conscripts. It’s a reprehensible tactic, even if it’s born from a desire to not employ more violent tactics to achieve the same goal.”

Zamona raised a hand as if to interrupt, but let the conversation play out.

“It is with gratitude and, I admit, some degree of trepidation, that the Dyson Empire has chosen a method for waging war which will minimize the loss of life, if resistance continues, to just one. I have agreed to single combat against the Emperor’s Herald, him with any weapons he chooses and me with my confiscated flight suit and weaponry, if the public agrees that this would be preferable to an outright surrender. Should I be victorious, the empire agrees to-”

The screens across Veskid went black.

***

“Just what were you trying to pull, Ortega?” shouted Zamona, crossing the small studio with surprising speed for a person of his size. Ortega shrugged at the nearing behemoth.

“You wanted to cash in on my image as a beaten hero? Fine. That’ll come with a cost though. You actually have to beat me first.”

“You don’t want that,” said Zamona, pointing a massive, gauntlet-obscured finger at the captain. “You really don’t want that. I don’t care if you’ve got your fancy space suit or blasters. You’d be dead so fast that they’d hear about it yesterday. We’re going to go live again, and you’re going to tell people what’s REALLY going to happen here.”

“I think I just did,” said Ortega. “How do you think it’ll help your position if they all see you backing off now? This is a PR move, and you’ll be losing on the PR. What do you say, then? Fight me for Veskid if the public agrees to that. If I lose, move in, set up statues, or do whatever it is that you do when you conquer planets. If I win, then take off and leave this system alone.”

“No,” said Zamona. “No, no, I’m not doing that. You think you’ve got me over a barrel, but you’ve got nothing. Our demands will go to Veskid as planned, and you’ll be confined to tight security until after this system’s completely under our control.”

Episode 109: The View From Above

Carmen felt the crunch of the ship on the opposite side of her asteroid and scanned the skies for the next target. The nearly crippled law enforcement vessel that she, Vince and Xorn’Tal saved had given up trying to convince them to leave, and had instead left to find a dock where it could be repaired. More of the strange ships had blasted into the system near Mandrake, and most had ignored the racers, but four others had stopped to attack. Each racer had landed the final, crushing strike that left the ships drifting in the vacuum on two so far, and Carmen was eager to get to three before Vince or Xorn’Tal could.

Another ship neared Mandrake, bearing the same logo that Carmen had started to recognize, half of an eye’s outer edge with an entire pupil in the center. The ship was much larger than the flimsy fighter ships that she had been tearing apart.

“We might not want to take on that one,” said Vince.

“Show some backbone, will ya?”

“New ship: heavy structure,” said Xorn’tal. “Hull: strong. Aerodynamics: unimportant. Asteroid structure: weaker.”

“Maybe yours is,” said Carmen.

“Hey, Carmen, that shangmere lady carved up your ride pretty badly. It’s been a rush fighting off… whatever these are, but we’ve been taking some damage too. It won’t take them long to figure out that they can just target the single, mostly defenseless life form on each asteroid to end the problem. Besides, the police got away, so we’re not protecting the Phantom Matador data anymore.”

Carmen started to respond but a public channel began broadcasting. She switched feeds just as the incoming message started.

“Petrakinetic racers,” said the strong voice on the other end of the line, “do not interfere. We are the first salvo of The Dyson Empire’s attack on the Veskid system. We respect your desire to stand your ground. Understand that our fight is not with members of the federation, but with the authorities of Veskid.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were phrasing that to try and side with us by making the big tamales on Veskid seem like a common enemy,” said Carmen.

“What?” said the voice. “No, I’m not.”

“Seems like you are,” said Vince. “No different than corporations who try to look cool by paying celebrities to say they were paid to endorse their product.”

“Manipulation: not antagonistic: perpetual.”

“…What?” said the voice on the other end.

“He says that just because you’re trying to be hip, it doesn’t really mean that you’re wrong,” said Carmen. “It doesn’t mean that you’re right, either.”

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter,” said the voice. “We’ll make a deal, though: you stop smashing our ships, we don’t blast your asteroids out of the sky. You can’t stop us from invading, but we’ll let you steer clear.”

“Not enough,” said Carmen. “I want you to stop passing by Mandrake. Don’t come near this planet when you invade the system.”

“Seriously?” said the voice. “It’s a major path, right on our route.”

“Look, either stay far enough from Mandrake that you’re not showing up on local channels, or know that you’re going to have to slow down to tangle with us until you take us down. Yeah, you’ll probably blast us out of the sky eventually, but how sure are you that it’ll be soon enough to keep us from being a liability?”

“Pretty sure,” said the voice. “I’m especially certain if we don’t let the first few waves against you be the model you’re used to fighting.”

“You’re telling me your military plans’ll seriously be hampered by going a bit to the left or the right for however long Mandrake’s orbit keeps it in your way?”

The voice went silent, but in the background Carmen heard muffled discussions. Soon, a new voice was heard.

“We’ll consider your offer,” said the new voice. “While we consider, would you give us time for this vessel to retrieve the ships you’ve disabled? We’re detecting life signs, but they may need medical attention.”

“Deal,” said Carmen. “Signing off for now, call us when you make up your mind.”

Carmen switched off the main channel and opened the private one between herself, Xorn’Tal and Vince Flashman.

“I don’t trust ‘em,” said Vince.

“Obviously,” said Carmen. “They’ll try to push through before too long.”

“Consideration: withdrawal?”

“Wouldn’t be a crazy idea to pull back,” said Vince.

“Not just yet,” said Carmen. “I think we can slow ‘em down here for a bit longer.”

“Xorn’Tal and I can. Is your asteroid really up to it?”

Carmen concentrated and felt the structure of the Kinetic Kuiper. It was bad. There was a lot of density to it, but it wouldn’t be long before she was juggling multiple objects instead of propelling a single one. It was still repairable, but only just.

“It’ll have to be,” she said. “I’ve still gotta get my friend off that planet.”

“With just an asteroid? With no landing or retrieval gear?”

Carmen blinked.

“I’ll solve that problem when we get to it,” she said.

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack looked through his binoculars, an old fashioned approach that didn’t leave an electromagnetic signature like most long-range visual scanners and didn’t leave cyber footprints like redirected satellites. From his camouflaged tent on scenic Mount Porthinel he counted the seconds while watching the resort hotel that housed some of the richest and most celebrated people who ever wanted to relax without answering any uncomfortable questions.

Another thirty seconds and the doors to the gated pool area opened to reveal Azar and the towering form of Harold Zamona behind him, right on schedule. Over the last month, Zack had found the six best places on the mountain for observing Azar and Zamona. It had been rough going, but he was willing to accept the fact that Zamona legitimately meant no harm to Azar after so long. The two had enjoyed the luxuries offered by Ravelar, and Zamona hadn’t once done anything suspicious. Either Zamona was playing a very, very long game, or he was genuinely willing to assist Azar on this life of leisurely adventure.

Zack’s timer chimed. He took a deep breath and put away his binoculars. It would take him time to get off the mountain and even longer to walk to the space port, plus he should add time to dress in a manner that would make it look like he hadn’t been camping on a mountain for a month. He’d given himself two hours, but it would likely only take Azar and Zamona ten minutes, giving them plenty of time to enjoy some poolside fun. He’d have more of a head start than he’d need.

***

“He didn’t send a message saying that he’d missed the flight, did he?” asked Azar.

“No,” said Zamona, watching the passengers collecting their luggage. “But unless he’s not with the passengers of the Daring Dozen, he’s just not here.”

“I don’t like this,” said Azar, watching a blue-skinned cross between a mosquito and a jackal retrieving its luggage from the baggage claim.

“I know.”

“He should have let me pay for it all.”

“And miss my chance at testing out my infiltration technique?” asked Zack, walking up behind them. Azar spun in place, laughed at the sight of Zack, and gave the detective a quick hug. Harold Zamona merely smirked.

“You’re telling me you got on that plane without anyone knowing?”

“I had an earlier flight, actually,” said Zack. “I just knew that I’d be presentable by the time the Daring Dozen was disembarking. You don’t want to see a person right after they’ve been hiding by a Pestle Reactor for half a week.”

“You were hiding by the Pestle Reactor?” said Azar.

“No, but it’s fun to tell people that I can,” said Zack.

“I was about to say, that could cause brain damage, if not outright death,” said Azar. “I should know, some of my money came from working near an unshielded one for two hours a day to help Bristlecorp’s project finish on time.”

“You wouldn’t believe the things this guy did,” said Azar. “He’s been telling me all of the things he got his payment for. Can you believe they’d send someone with three Ph.D.’s into space just to do some soldering?”

“Absolutely,” said Zack. “But only because I’ve been doing my homework, and having a few other people do homework for me so that my poking around wouldn’t raise too many red flags. They needed the best and brightest to do the work, and with all the ethical concerns about programming artificial intelligences to be willing to toss their lives down the drain for projects on this level, they went with good old fashioned human laborers for suspiciously large payouts. Azar, we always knew that you were lucky to survive there, but I think I’ve found evidence that you’ve been even luckier than you knew. Some of those projects were all-but designed to kill off workers before they finished their work.”

“What?” said Azar, his brow creasing.

“Absolutely,” said Zack. “Don’t worry, though, it might be our ace in the hole. Sister Barris and I were hoping to find evidence that would link BristleCorp to the price on your head in a way that would make them hyper-liable if anything shy of natural causes did you in, but we weren’t expecting quite so much. Seriously, Barris is good at her job.”

“She does seem diligent,” said Azar. “She could make sense of a document that I’d never be able to understand.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, smart guy,” said Zack. “Or her, either. Some of the riskier documents she procured through less than legal methods. I won’t tell you that she almost strangled the friend of someone who pulled a gun on her, and I won’t tell you that she now knows that her WimpHelm will, in fact, stop a knife.”

“You sure you need me on this security job?” asked Zamona.

“Absolutely,” said Azar. “Zack can’t be both here and investigating my case back home.”

“Right,” said Zack, thinking over the last month of mountain-side camping and spying on people who were paying for the privilege of not being spied upon. “Though with some of the dirt uncovered by the people I’ve been asking to do side research for me, it’s possible that I might be able to stick around for a bit longer than planned.”

“Excellent!” said Azar. “It’ll be wonderful to have you around.”

“Is it necessary, though?” asked Zamona. “A third party might draw more attention.”

“There’s a little risk, yes,” said Zack. “Unfortunately, I think it’s necessary. There are a few things I need to find out, and you’ll be the best person to ask, Azar.”

“I’ll help however I can,” said Azar.

“Good,” said Zack. “Because we’re going to figure out each and every way that BristleCorp tried to kill you.”

Episode 104: Cold Comfort

The layer of frost from the rim of the tub should not have been possible under normal circumstances. Designed to keep its contents in a permanent deep freeze, the technology was made both for beings from worlds with temperatures that would make humans freeze to death and for people who wanted a semi-portable way to keep large quantities of food on ice. Igneous’ modifications had ramped up its power to compensate for the fact that it wasn’t built for creatures who generated their own heat. At least, not as much heat as she did.

The captain knocked on the lid. After a few moments, the lid cracked open and a burst of warm steam poured out. A bright light shone from within the steam and Igneous lifted herself from the once frosty container. Bright reds and oranges illuminated the cargo bay as the fire beneath her cracked exterior came into sight.

“Your cold tub may need some repairs,” said the captain. “There’s some ice by the seam.”

“That can happen when you open the tub unexpectedly,” said Igneous. “I got out to install one of the liquid nitrogen containers.”

She gestured to the side of the tub, illuminating the shiny cylinder which had been connected by a pipe and valve to the inner workings of the tub. The captain nodded.

“I see. So, some of the coldness got out as you closed the door again, frost generates… still seems sloppy.”

“What is it?”

“We’ll be able to make our approach soon.”

“Fine. Just knock on the tub before you drop me on Mandrake, I’ll be fine.”

“I wanted to tell you that the system is undergoing some upheaval. System-wide communications are down, and just before that happened an order for all civilian ships to return to safe harbor was issued. Since then we’ve detected military action. Veskid may be under assault.”

Igneous’ expression changed, but the captain couldn’t read it. She nodded.

“That’s unfortunate. Hopefully it’s resolved by the time you pick me up.”

“That’s the other issue. We’re going to be dropping you off, but we won’t be able to stay in orbit around the planet without drawing unwanted attention. No port is close enough to Mandrake to register a standard signal, and a light speed message could be intercepted. It might be a long time before we can swing by to get you again.”

Igneous looked at her cold tub.

“We’ll make do,” she said. “If I finish what I’m going to do, I won’t have much liquid nitrogen left, but… I think it should suffice.”

“Are you sure you should be using that? I thought it would make you brittle.”

“I’m tough,” she said. “I’ll stop before I get as brittle as pavement, don’t worry.”

“I think you’re already-”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “If everything goes according to plan, I’ll be back to normal soon.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

Igneous stepped back into the tub.

“Then I’ve already got my coffin for when I need it.”

Episode 80: Desperation and Danger

Zack tumbled through the air, experiencing the vertigo-inducing transition between jumping away from something and falling to something else without changing direction. The leap from Xorn’Tal’s asteroid had been uneventful, a rare problem-free attempt at executing a plan without difficulty.

Zack’s robotic parachute was happy. It had worried, to the extent that its code allowed worry, that the interruption of Zack’s initial jump would have prevented it from achieving its planned operation. The only change now was that its operator had, apparently, somehow moved to another, leafier asteroid without requiring its services. An analysis of the space around its operator revealed an abnormal asteroid density in the immediate vicinity, but nothing in the way of the current descent.

Zack double checked his heat shield to make sure that it was active, unsure of what he would do in the event that it wasn’t. There had been rare accounts of drops from this height without a reentry shield, but no humans had done it to his knowledge. Fortunately the shield was holding up nicely.

The jets within the parachute kicked in and began steering him toward the still distant ground. Flashes of orange and red flame began to appear in his vision, flaring into existence mere inches from his face and, when he looked reflexively, all around him. The flames of reentry licked hungrily against the invisible shield provided by his reentry device, and he wasn’t sure if the temperature actually began to increase or if he was just imagining it becoming warmer as the wreath of flame about him became more constant and steady.

Zack wasn’t sure how long the fall would take, but dimly remembered that a fall from the generally agreed upon boundaries of “space” for most human-friendly worlds would take three to five minutes for an unpowered craft that was dropping like a stone, but since he had a smaller surface area than an escape pod and since the robotic parachute would be steering him and slowing his descent he expected to take over a quarter of an hour once he was more firmly within Mandrake’s atmosphere.

He could already see the brilliant greens and vibrant oranges and reds of the jungles that infested the planet. Far denser than the recreation of the underjungles of Ravelar that Murk had shown him, Mandrake’s vegetation was what had drawn humans to the Veskid system in the first place after long-range space probes had revealed its presence. After getting closer and seeing the heart-pounding reality of a jungle more dangerous than anything they had prepared for, the settlers instead opted to take a closer look at the comparatively barren, but still usable, world of Veskid, effectively agreeing to the Desperation that their first city was named for when they crashed upon approach. It was old hat among the citizens of Veskid to remark how the settlers who founded the city had chosen desperation over danger.

Historical goals are long lasting ones, however, and in the ensuing decades Mandrake had been examined more carefully. It would never be a friendly place, but over time numerous expeditions, adventure seekers, scientific researchers and insane treasure hunters had gone there, mostly to be heard from again.

The parachute beeped and propelled Zack to what he was prepared to call the west, though he had been disoriented by the drop. He wasn’t sure where Carmen had set up for his landing sight and ultimate rendezvous point, but he started watching eagerly, hoping to see some clearing ahead even though he knew he was still miles away from achieving planetfall.

***

“More fire from the sky, Chala.”

Chala turned from her work at the primitive forge and saw Baurik nearing. The bright feathers and serpentine scales that covered him still seemed surprising, though fortunately no longer threatening, not since the inter-tribal peace began.

“What sort of fire?”

“Small,” Baurik said. “We almost missed it. I am bound to report this to the Suzerain, as you know.”

“I know,” said Chala, turning back to the forge and shaking a joint into place. “I’m surprised you haven’t already.”

“Every fire brings change,” said Baurik. “As an agent of change, you have the most to lose.”

“Don’t worry about me,” said Chala. “I’ve got everything under control.”

“The Suzerain has everything under control,” said Baurik. “And she agrees with you when you petition for peace… individually. As do I. But the Suzerain cannot… will not… continually leash the tribes from pursuing starprey. She would rather put out brushfires than the sun.”

“I can’t blame her,” said Chala. “I’ll talk to whoever it is. I can convince them to leave. It’s probably just another treasure hunter.”

“And if you can’t?”

“I sided with the Suzerain, and she’s got my back when I play nice,” said Chala. She grabbed her bow… the alien device of metal and plastic that Baurik still found hard to imagine. Chala had explained the process of molding “plastic” and other materials, building component parts up instead of whittling component parts down, but it still felt wrong seeing such a common device in an uncommon way.

“You will… encourage him more strenuously?”

Chala looked at Baurik. There was a trill in the back of his throat that suggested something like coyness, or teasing. She smiled and shook her head.

“I’m in the tribes now, Baurik,” she said. “If he doesn’t go when I first warn him, then I get to hunt starprey.”

Episode 56: Hyperwave Silence

Carmen and dozens of asteroid racers achieved liftoff, each propelling themselves forward and upward through the archway that signified the starting line. Carmen could feel the atmosphere of the event, a palpable tingling of excitement in the first second of racing that grew from the combined thirst for thrills and need for speed. There was a momentary sense of vertigo that accompanied the rapidly vanishing crowds who fell away from her peripheral vision, but it vanished after she took note of which racers were already drifting behind her. This was going to be a tense race no matter how it played out, but the start remained unsullied.

The weak forcefield grew nearer as she passed between the spires that ran along the runway. Some had audience members or crew members trying to get a better view of the final moments before the asteroids passed into the hard vacuum of space, others were purely decorative. One was the home to a temporary concession stand that sold overpriced drinks, snacks, and souvenirs to anyone desperate enough to spend a huge amount of money on the launch station instead of just waiting a few hours to get a cheaper rate on the surface of Veskid.

As she neared the concession spire, the troubling shape of a humanoid figure stepped over the fence that separated the audience members from the fifty foot drop to the course below. Carmen tried ignoring the figure as she neared it, knowing that she needed to focus on the race instead. Sometimes dedicated fans thought it would be fun to get onto the race track, though usually from a safer location. Sure enough, a warning ping sounded over her headset, alerting her to someone entering the track in her vicinity.

Carmen expected to see an emergency lift slide into place to catch the falling fan, and the lift did, in fact, move to an appropriate position. However, the fan kicked away from the wall and pushed through the air toward the asteroids. Just as Carmen passed the spire and the figure began to move out of her line of sight, Carmen witnessed the unfolding of leathery, bat-like wings.

Moments later, Carmen felt the impact of someone crashing into the side of her ride.

Moments after that, the asteroid passed the forcefield and moved into the empty void of space.

“We seem to have a party crasher on the course, folks!” said Mark Matthews. “A stowaway just boarded Carmen’s asteroid, landing less than a second before the racers passed the forcefield! A shangmere, if I’m not mistaken. An amazing sight to see! Uh, one that we absolutely don’t advocate, of course, due to the dangers it presents to audience members, racing staff, and the racers themselves. Hopefully the stowaway’ll be content to just sit tight.”

Carmen groaned. The last thing she needed was a crazy fan messing up the race.

Carmen’s headset buzzed, with an indication that Zack’s channel was trying to reach her. She rethought her priorities and decided that this call was actually the last thing she needed. She ignored the call for a few moments, but then her headset answered, seemingly on its own.

“Did he just say that there’s a stowaway?”

“Zack?” she said. “Zack, yeah, he… how are you talking to me, I didn’t answer that.”

“An old trick, you can bounce what looks like an emergency signal through channels like these to force an electronic answer as long as there’s no mechanical reason for the device not to answer. This is just a model I know. Look, he said stowaway.”

“Yeah,” said Carmen. “Don’t worry, he’s not talking about you, it’s probably just some fan.”

“I know it’s not me,” said Zack. “I’m not shangmere, I’m human.”

“Look, he’ll probably just scrabble around the rock until he finds me, I’ll promise him an autograph if he just sits still and gets off at the next checkpoint, and I’ll be delayed, like, two seconds getting him off the asteroid. Then it’ll just be you and me again, and I’ll clear things up with security after the fact so that the poor guy doesn’t get thrown in the slammer for the next decade or two. If anything, this’ll help your cover.”

“What makes you think it’s a him?”

“It’s always a him,” said Carmen. “Statistically, the sports fans crazy enough to jump onto the race course during a race are guys, bonus points for the ones who jump onto asteroids moments before leaving atmo.”

“This has happened to you before?”

“Of course it hasn’t happened before! It’s a bat-person flying onto a track with gigantic, multi-ton rocks at high speed and landing successfully. Most crazed fans just run across the track with a flag or something, or try to get to the asteroids before the race starts.”

“I don’t think they like being called bat people,” said Zack. He reached across the ground in his hideaway and picked up one of the bowls of popcorn that he’d made for the trip.

“Fine, right,” said Carmen, sounding more and more annoyed over his headpiece. “Look, I’m gonna try to get this person to be quiet so that it doesn’t use up too much of our air here, but in the meantime we should follow suit and not talk. Got it?”

“Okay,” said Zack. “How about some code words so that I know when the person’s there? Like, say howdy when you see them, and cozy when you’ve gotten them to settle down so that I know that it’s okay.”

“I’d never say that,” says Carmen. “I’ll say… uh… Well, hey there!”

“I can live with that,” said Zack.

“And I’ll say something like just sit tight once I’ve gotten him to agree to sit down.”

Zack nodded to himself.

“Until then, though, let’s keep the signals quiet.”

Zack reached over to pick up the book he’d brought, and saw someone else in the cave. A tall, gangly woman with wide eyes was peering at him from the shadows, smiling a toothy smile.

“Well, hey there!” Zack said.

Surprised and caught reclining, Zack couldn’t react before the shangmere jumped at him. She punched a hand forward, and a staff of wood and metal swung out from it like the arm of a massive clock. It swept away his green hat and the headset beneath it.

“Hey!” shouted Zack.

The shangmere didn’t respond, instead continuing the calculated arc of the staff until she held it over her head. She slammed the staff onto the hat, repeatedly crushing the fedora, the antenna emerging from it, and the headset within it, effectively silencing all communications.

“Right, I’ll say it just like that,” said Carmen, scanning the asteroid around her as best as she could while still keeping her eyes on the race course and the other asteroids. “Like I’m trying to tell you about it without tipping him off. Hyperwave silence now, though, right?”

The empty buzz of a silent channel came through Carmen’s headset.

“Yeah, like… that,” she said. “Must’ve signed off early.”

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…