Tag Archives: Virellium

Episode 162: Sneezing Powder

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

“Hmm?”

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

Silence ensued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are Nectra, yes?”

“Ye-”

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

“What?”

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

“You’re a friend of Zack’s?”

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

Episode 154: Flight Delay

Zack and Nectra continued moving the body of The Phantom Matador. Zack had wearied of transporting The Phantom Matador by lifting his limbs quickly, and Nectra had recommended the switch to carrying the criminal by keeping his arms over their shoulders. Appearing to walk side by side, the three trudge through the jungle. Zack was definitely moving slower, and looking paler. He coughed violently and slowed to a stop.

“Hey, mind if we take another break?” he asked. “This heat’s gettin’ to me… maybe Igneous’ ice tub wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.”

“Ice tub? And no, I don’t mind.”

“Yeah, she was… overheating or something? And so she made or bought a kind of hot tub that was cold. Who knows why.”

“Well, I don’t think we can do that,” she said, awkwardly lowering the Phantom Matador’s body to the muddy floor of the alien jungle. “But we can rest a bit. I can even scout ahead if you’d like!”

“Yeah, sure,” said Zack. “Don’t be too long, though. I dunno what Fletch drugged Matty with but it’s not deadly, so he’ll come to eventually. We should both be on the lookout for that.”

“Right,” said Nectra. “I’ll… get our bearings. Make sure we’re on the right path. Ooh, or maybe ask one of those snake people for directions!”

“I dunno how well that’d go over,” said Zack. “I said you might’ve been involved in those murders. Plus you don’t speak the language, do you?”

“Right, the murders… rest here, I’ll be back.”

Nectra’s wings opened, and she pulled her staff off of her back. Using the leverage that it granted, she easily jumped to a low branch, kicked herself even higher, and began gliding away.

Zack watched the flying shangmere until she was out of sight before turning back to The Phantom Matador, half expecting the criminal to already be up and pointing an energy blade at him. Zack reached into his coat, and pulled out a Purcellian Striker.

“Not a bad idea, imaginary Mat,” he said, charging the Striker and aiming it at his prisoner. In time he found a suitably dry log didn’t look poisonous and he sat upon it. Minutes later he drifted off to sleep.

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack checked his passport again before looking out the window. The pilot for his charter plane was running late, and the other two passengers at the private terminal weren’t talkative. One was a haukreen carrying a glowing glass tube over its shoulder, and the other a human wearing a business suit and checking a watch while reading a small pamphlet on the ecological impact of human civilizations on non-human planets.

An orange skinned vantarian neared, the first that Zack had ever seen with his own eyes. The four-legged creature approached, looking comfortable in a captain’s uniform that looked like it had been designed for humans but altered to accommodate humanoid employees. The vantarian tipped its hat.

“Apologies, everyone,” he said. “We can begin boarding now, there was just a last minute charter service that I needed to attend to. Which one of you is Zack Gamma?”

Zack shifted uncomfortably and looked at the other two passengers, who were similarly looking at each other and him. Zack looked back.

“Who wants to know?”

“Oh, it involves the delay,” said the captain, smiling. “Are you Mister Gamma, then? Someone came here to meet you. Is that fine?”

Zack looked at the captain in confusion before glancing at the entrance to the comfortable sitting area that acted as the private terminal’s waiting area. A grizzled, though well-groomed and decidedly sheepish, Azar stood at the door. He raised a hand in a friendly half-wave. Zack returned the gesture and turned back.

“Yeah, yeah that’s fine. I just go through the double doors when we’re done talking?”

“Oh, yes,” said the captain, turning toward the doors himself. “Take all the time you need, he tipped generously to earn a little extra time for your plane before we take off.”

The vantarian walked toward the double doors and the two other passengers followed, eying Zack and the stranger curiously. Zack watched them go as Azar neared, looking almost apologetic.

“Hello, Zack,” he said. “I found your folder and realized you were slipping off without saying goodbye.”

“I said goodbye last night,” said Zack. “And again before you came out to Ravelar with a former pro-wrestler for your secret vacation, if you’ll recall. I don’t belong here.”

“We’re your friends here, Zack. Seems to me you belong where friends are. Plus, if memory serves, you weren’t thrilled with the plan to head to Ravelar.”

“I was wrong about that,” said Zack. “Zamona wasn’t waiting to get you alone to turn in the bounty. Or if he is, he’s playing a longer game, one I wouldn’t expect him to have the patience for.”

“You don’t give him enough credit, Zack. He’s actually very bright.”

“Maybe not. You could see the silver lining of a smog cloud, though, so forgive me for being paranoid. It’s in the job.”

“One you do very well. Stay safe out there, Zack.”

“And you stay safe here. Take care, okay?”

“I will. Goodbye, Zack. And one more thing?”

“Yeah?”

Azar reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, glowing disk, a coin made of energy. Zack recoiled, but Azar was faster, quickly slipping it into Zack’s hand. The detective almost dropped it in surprise.

“Hey!” he shouted, while his brain processed. “Wow, that’s… that’s heavier than I thought. And… almost hot.”

“Hold onto that for me, would you?” said Azar. “I don’t like keeping all my eggs in one basket. One’s in the bank, and the interest alone is paying for everything here… the other I keep with me. And I think that you should take the third.”

“Azar, that’s crazy. This thing should be-”

“In a bank? In a safe? Zack, it does no good in either of those. If I lose one, I have two others. Just keep it until we meet again.”

“Azar, I appreciate that we’ve been through a lot here, but this is a lot of money. You still don’t know that I won’t just run off with it, abandon you, and drop this in a bank somewhere for myself.”

“Are you saying you will?”

“Well, no… but that’s not really the point, is it? You shouldn’t trust someone with this much money.”

“I shouldn’t,” said Azar. “I will though. Bring it back in one piece for a nice bonus. Or use it for expenses.”

Zack looked at the coin and gulped.

“Azar, this technically makes me one of the wealthiest people ever by proxy.”

“It makes you one of the wealthiest people ever literally, at least while you have it. The oddity with wealth is that you need a place to spend it.”

“I can spend it all I like after I finish this job for the monasteries.”

“You can’t spend it in one place, though,” said Azar. “I’ve looked. Look, this is just for emergencies. And after what I read in that red folder you slid under my door-”

“You’re a fast reader if you read all that already.”

“I was in the habit of double-checking the fine print when I signed on for my hazard pay jobs,” said Azar. “Teleporting rigs don’t build themselves, after all. You need to know what you’re getting into.”

“Fair point. Look, Azar, this is still crazy even if you DO trust me.”

“I’ve earned the right to be eccentric, Gamma, and I’d ask you to respect that. We all have lives we want to live, and I’d like to do things that I like to do. Just like you enjoy helping people, and like Zamona enjoys wrestling. Did you hear about his first match the other night?”

“Yeah, it’s crazy,” said Zack. “He was good, they say… though I think it’s bad for our cover.”

“Of course you do,” said Azar. “Look, it’ll be a while before you can access a bank and take payment from me. Just hold onto this in case you need it, all right?”

Zack narrowed his eyes but Azar stared back with large, friendly eyes that lacked any real concern about the world or the reasonable dangers it contained. Zack eventually closed his eyes.

“Fine,” said Zack. “But you’re takin’ this back as soon as we meet again.”

“Do you think that’s likely? Your notes in the red folder were… thorough.”

“Look, just follow those exactly. I’ll keep in touch eventually, I’ll just have to keep tabs on how it unfolds.”

“Are you sure you can do that? It’s a complicated scheme.”

“Hey, did you forget who you’re talkin’ to?” said Zack, taking a step away and tapping his hat with the coin. “Mind like a steel trap. Look, I don’t wanna delay the fine folks on my plane any more, so…”

“Goodbye, Zack,” said Azar. “And good luck.”

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 120: Trial by Verdict

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

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

A distant squawking creature made itself known in the distance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good!” said Nectra. “I mean… what?”

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

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

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

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

“What? But he’s helping me.”

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

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

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

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

“Zack? You set a trap for me?”

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 114: Bite of the Red Guard

The sthenite shrieked again at the sight of Zack, standing over the corpses.

“This isn’t,” Zack started, honestly not sure where he was going with it. He looked at the two sthenites on the ground, and at the scorch marks that were left behind by their assailant.

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha!” he said again, holding his hands up in what he hoped was an acceptable sign of non-aggression. The sthenite slithered backward, a visual that Zack hadn’t been prepared to see. It tilted its head like a nervous bird.

“Shyese tzanara,” Zack said, slowly pointing to the two corpses just as the overseer had said, “Dojurbu Hansha.”

He thought about the situation. Was he actually pointing at the first dead sthenite that he had seen when he pointed at Dojurbu? Or the sthenite that he hoped was Dojurbu?

Another Sthenite rounded the ledge, and began climbing up the rocky path. Zack saw the red scales and cobra-like hood that he’d come to recognize as common among the physical laborers and guards. The new sthenite saw an alien in a green trench coat and horrible hat standing where and how a murderer might stand. The guard hissed and jumped at Zack, baring its fangs. Zack tried to dodge, but was too slow to avoid the lightning-fast strike.

***

“Zack!”

Zack coughed and sat up, feeling a sense of overwhelming dread.

“What?”

“Zack, I need to talk to you.”

He blinked. The light was dim. He was lying on a small bed made from woven reeds. Was he in a hut? Someone was sitting next to him.

“Chala?”

“Zack, how did you know Dojurbu and Hansha’s names?”

“How… the strange… thing that managed the trial, she told me what their names would be.”

Chala didn’t answer. Zack’s eyes were starting to adjust. It was definitely her.

“She told me that those would be the names of the first two sthenites I saw when I left the cave. I didn’t know that they’d be… I really don’t know why all this is happening. Someone followed me into the trial pit.”

“Not possible. The location of the exit is a secret to those who haven’t finished the trial.”

“She has a way of finding me. She’s an alien.”

“So are you. So am I.”

“No, like… not a sthenite and not a human. She’s a shangmere, and she’s got a way of tracking me.”

“How?”

“She says that it tracks Virellium Force Energy, and anyone who’s come in contact with it.”

Chala stood and walked to a wall. Zack dimly registered the image of her leaning against it, but she was right at the edge of his vision.

“The phrase you said to the one who found you with the bodies? It saved your life. She saved your life, I mean. She told the guard what you said, and stopped him during the venom injection. She said that you knew the names and that it was important.”

“That’s a relief.”

“There was a third murder,” she said. Zack tensed and stood, ignoring the sudden headache that standing caused after his venom injection.

“A third murder?”

“Someone else was killed in the same manner as Dojurbu and Hansha. She was killed in front of my hut in a different village. A messenger arrived to report it.”

“Do they think I killed her as well?”

“She died while you were in the trial pit. It lends some credence to the mystery surrounding your appearance outside the trial pit, a place you shouldn’t have found until much later.”

“The attacker in the trial pit, she wants to kill me.”

“And others as well, it seems. All while trying to find you.”

“That doesn’t make sense, though,” said Zack. “Why would she track me to your home in a different village?”

“Because of my forge,” she said, just as Zack’s eyes finished adjusting. “It’s where I keep all of my supplies. Everything I work on. And, unfortunately, where I’ve hidden a substantial amount of Virellium.”

Episode 63: Varied Approach

Zack strapped the robotic parachute to his back. It chirped a greeting and began its exploratory examination of the skies while it loaded Carmen’s program. A leap from a petrakinetically propelled asteroid onto a planet as it hurtled above. The parachute was intrigued by the variables.

Zack looked at the skies. Mandrake was drawing nearer, but it was making him impatient. In a regular ship, they would have reached Mandrake shortly after it became visible, but it was getting larger at an almost painful rate.

“How do you do it, Carmen?”

“Hmm?” Carmen tilted her weight slightly. The asteroid responded in kind. Zack wondered why she moved at all when she could just think her way into making the asteroid move, but waved off the concern.

“How do you make the atmosphere stay in place? It’s important.”

“Why?” asked Carmen. “I mean, it’s not a big deal, but you’ve sorta been harping on about it. And always at weird times…”

“Do you remember when we were in Helix?” asked Zack. “My botched attempt to save you after you’d already escaped from Murk’s headquarters?”

“Right,” said Carmen. “Wild ride at the end of an awful day.”

“Do you remember the… ghost thing? Igneous kept calling it a prophet, it was some sort of Pyrhian Air Man.”

“I remember,” said Carmen. “It said a lot of things. It said that the Void Pilgrim’s out there somewhere.”

“Void…? That’s not important,” said Zack. “I don’t think that part was a message for me, at least. It didn’t seem stable. Like it’s attention was divided.”

“Then what about it?”

“It told me… at least, I think it was talking to me… it asked me how my friend flies, and I think it meant you. It asked why you’re not crushed in space. How are any of you not crushed in space? You veer at wild angles while moving at speeds that should be generating G-forces well beyond the ability for humans to withstand.”

“What’s your point?”

“Controlling rocks can’t overcome that kind of physical law, Carmen. It also can’t keep a breathable atmosphere in place, rocks aren’t air.”

Carmen grinned.

“Not everyone who’s petrakinetic can join the races, Zack. You’ve gotta have other talents.”

“Like?”

“I’ve got a touch of gravitational influence and some say about brownian motion in my vicinity too. The… weirdness in my brain doesn’t just stop right at the borders of rock control. Mental mutations like that aren’t exactly clean cut, and most people with psychic abilities don’t just have one.”

“So everyone in the races has some mild control over gravity and air currents?”

“No,” said Carmen. “It varies. It doesn’t matter what combination of abilities a person has, as long as it allows them to propel themselves through space while they stand on a rock.”

“So what you’re saying is that someone with petrakinetic abilities wouldn’t be limited to those.”

“No, of course not. It’s probably what they’ve got the most of, but they probably have something else going for them. Zack, either get to the point or get ready to jump.”

“Could the Phantom Matador have other abilities?”

Carmen’s eyes narrowed. She focused on Mandrake as it grew closer, filling up a greater and greater percentage of the sky. She altered her trajectory, wanting to barely skim the atmosphere.

“He might. Sure.”

“Could his other abilities help him to stay out of the reach of the authorities?” asked Zack. “What if he’s got some other ability. Is there any other common… or even rare… psychic ability that he might have?”

“I appreciate you worrying about my problems, Zack,” said Carmen. “Think about it on your trip down, though. I’m having trouble concentrating on everything, and-”

Carmen’s headset buzzed. Vince Flashman’s voice chimed in.

“I see him!” he said. “Circling over Mandrake’s north pole from the other side, looking like he’s timing the arc to match your flight path just before we’ll be getting there. His different arc might give him more speed from the slingshot than we’ll get.”

“Let’s take him out before he has the chance,” said Carmen.

“What?” said Zack. “What’s happening?”

“Get your heat shield ready,” said Carmen.

“Shield: Heat?” asked Xorn’Tal, chiming in.

“Confession time, guys; I’m helping someone get a close look at Mandrake, trying to keep it quiet. He wanted a mad jump from the stars to the surface and couldn’t wait for the legal paperwork. Can you keep a lid on it? Oh, and make sure you don’t crash into the guy on his way down.”

Zack waved his hands frantically. Carmen shook her head and gestured to the heat shield. Zack glared, activated the shield, and passed it over his shoulder where the robotic parachute reached for it, so that it could make it ready for the jump.

“Motive clear: flight plan.”

“No worries here,” said Vince. “Just focus on the Matador.”

“No other plans,” said Carmen. “Zack, are you ready to jump?”

“Yeah, but isn’t it still a little early?”

“Probably,” said Carmen. “I’ve got some bad news, though.”

“What’s that?”

A blade of shimmering energy sliced through the stone four yards away from Zack and began cutting its way across the surface of the asteroid.

“Didn’t want to panic you, but your friend’s almost out. Not much more I could’ve done without breaking the asteroid. Sorry, Zack. Ready?”

Zack watched the blade slide through the stone, making its way through a slow, determined path. The shangmere was almost free.

Episode 61: Cut And Run

The shangmere held the Virellium scythe over her head, and Zack stared at it, trying to determine if there was any way to jump at it as it fell, catching it before it struck him. She looked dangerous, and possibly unhinged, but she didn’t carry herself like a trained fighter. He prepared himself to spring forward, anticipating the scythe’s downward arc.

She held her pose, wringing the scythe in her hands. She stood motionless and Zack started to wonder why he wasn’t already being attacked.

“Why-” he started.

“You hear it too?”

Zack kept his eyes on the scythe.

“Hear what?”

“It,” she said. “That… creaking. Like pretzels being crushed in a bag.”

Zack tilted his head.

“No.”

“Are you sure? It’s in the human threshold.”

Zack almost denied it again but it grew louder, a shuddering rumble coming from all sides. The shangmere saw the look on his face.

“There! Now you hear it. What is it?”

“How should I know?” asked Zack. “It’s not my asteroid.”

The reverberations grew louder, and the inside of the cave rattled. The shangmere pulled her scythe closer as she watched the walls nervously. Zack carefully pulled off the blanket and slowly went from lying down to crouching.

With a sudden crunch, a slab of rock shot down from the ceiling of the cave, cutting the chamber into two sections. Zack screamed in surprise, reflexively pulling back from the falling rock moments too late for it to have done any good had there been actual danger.

“No!” came the muffled cry of the shangmere on the other side of the wall. Zack took a deep breath and eventually heard the sound of fists angrily banging against the other side of the rock. Zack smiled. He wasn’t sure how Carmen had known, but she’d come to his rescue just in time.

“It’s no use!” he shouted at the rock wall. “You can’t get to me now!”

The hammering on the other side of the wall subsided. Then, an iridescent blade of energy pierced the rocky wall, poking out from the darkness beyond. Zack jumped back to the wall behind him and watched the scythe’s blade begin to slide down, haltingly progressing through the rock as if being impatiently yanked and pushed by a nervous hand on the other side.

The rumbling returned, and with a sudden crunch the wall behind Zack fell away. Zack looked into the dark tunnel that it revealed. He reached for his packet of supplies and the dented remains of his hat, and ran down the dark corridor. Moments later the rock wall lifted again, hiding his exit from view.

***

Zack stepped out of the tunnel and found himself staring into the enormity of space, with no force field in place to alter the view. He had known on some level what it would be like to be standing on an asteroid, but somehow he’d never really appreciated how incredible it would look.

“Over here, Zack!”

He snapped out of his reverie and turned to look in the direction of the shout. He skittered across the pocked surface of the rock, and climbed over a short ridge. Dozens of feet away, he saw Carmen standing on a flattened plinth of stone, one foot forward as if she was posed in a perpetual lunge that reminded Zack of surfers or jet boarders. Small boxes of tools or supplies, and what looked like an ice cooler, littered the ground near her feet. She was staring forward and upward, picking which stars to use as her guideposts.

“Carmen!” he shouted, running closer. “Carmen, thanks. That shangmere’s a bounty hunter. I’d guess inexperienced, but definitely dangerous.”

“Shhh,” said Carmen. “Voice down. If my crew opens a channel to tell me something, it’ll be better if you’re quiet. You’ll sound more like I’m talking to someone on another channel.”

“Right,” said Zack, getting closer. “You seem tense.”

“There’s a crazy killer on my ride, and I’m in second place. I don’t know who this rookie is, but she’s going down.”

“Right,” said Zack. “How’d you know I was in trouble?”

“Well, I thought it was kinda weird how you ended communications there. And then no bat guy ran up to me for an autograph. Then I focused on the rock. I could feel where you were, and someone pretty close to you. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I guessed it was bad news. He’s doing something, it’s cutting through my ride one cave at a time. I don’t think I can keep him down there for long. I’m already risking some structural problems with what I’ve done. Plus there’s only so much on-the-fly rebuilding of an asteroid you can do before you get investigated for cheating. When he gets out do you think you can keep ahead of him?”

“It’s a her actually. And… I don’t know. She was fast. Plus she’s got wings.”

“She doesn’t wanna use those up here,” said Carmen. “The atmosphere starts to end a few dozen feet up. Speaking of, do you still have your survival kit?”

“Grabbed it on my way out,” said Zack.

“Good,” said Carmen. “Although she’s pretty dedicated to getting to the surface. It’s almost a shame that you don’t have an excuse to run back into those caves to hide from her.”

“She’s got some kind of tracker, it wouldn’t help.”

“A tracker?”

“She said that it’d lead to me, that it tracks people who’ve come into contact with Virellium.”

“Oh, sweet, I’ve always wanted to see some of that stuff.”

“You’re in luck, then. She’s got a scythe that looks like it’s made out of it. Or at least some sort of energy enhanced by it, it’d be ridiculously expensive for that blade to be entirely Virellium.”

“Crazy. When’d you get the chance to handle it?”

“That’s just the thing,” said Zack. “I’ve never touched Virellium.”

“Never?” said Carmen.

“Never,” said Zack. He considered saying “Not that I remember”, but decided to stick with his answer. He’d had memory issues lately, he knew it. Virellium was so rare that he could rule out touching it even during memory gaps.

On the other hand, he also knew he’d never done anything to earn the wrath of the Desperate Measures Agency. He never liked it in cases when impossibilities came together, even though it usually meant that he was on the right track. He liked it less now that he was in the middle of it all.

Carmen scowled. She frantically moved her eyes across the sky.

“What’s wrong?” said Zack.

“Don’t you hear that?”

Zack held up his crushed hat. Carmen stared at it for a moment before she nodded to a small toolbox lying near her. He ran to it and opened it, finding two replacement headsets. He quickly put one on and heard the final notes of a mariachi fanfare.

“Someone on our racing team has spotted an intruder on the course, folks!” came an enthusiastic announcer over the sound of a cheering audience. “The Phantom Matador, scourge of the racing federation and ghostly artist of the quick escape has returned! I don’t think you need to run in a qualifying race to crash the scene later in the month, but he must not’ve gotten the race guidelines that we give to all the official racers. Just a reminder, folks, that the racing federation takes all such acts of interference in the races seriously, and… wait, there he is. Look at him go!”

Zack turned to look at Carmen. Rage was covering her face and she was arching further forward, balancing on her feet like an animal ready to pounce.

“Carmen, do you-”

“I’m getting him this time, Zack. Get ready to jump. I’m gonna get you to Mandrake ahead of schedule just to be sure.”

Episode 50: Nectra

Nectra hung from her perch, a staff of wood and metal stretched between two rocks in her chambers. She tinkered with the device, connecting the custom-designed circuitry to the detector. The indoor garden had been intended for a peaceful, relaxing, and meditative experience, but she’d found that it helped more with the technological side of her work. The small workspace that she’d stationed between the two pillar-like stones allowed her to communicate with clientele and fabricate special equipment while stretching. In less well lit rooms she might have passed for a human (if you ignored the hooks at her ankles that allowed her to hang upside down), but her pale blue skin was apparent to her audience as she worked.

“Are you almost done?” he asked.

“Patience, Mr. Mayfair,” she said. “It’s almost there…”

“You could have called me right after you’d finished.”

“And kept you from seeing my moment of triumph?” she said. “That wouldn’t do at all, Mr. Mayfair. Thanks again for bringing me in on this. It’s a huge opportunity, not to mention a relief to be home again.”

“Bristlecorp is impatient,” said the lawyer on the other side of the view screen. “As eager as we are to let the Desperate Measures Agency continue handling this at its own rate, Bristlecorp doesn’t want to wait any longer than it needs to. As such, we will turn to our other… subsidiaries.”

Nectra’s head snapped in the direction of the monitor and Mayfair winced at the sight. Her face seemed human enough from the side, but the nose, mouth, and eyes were all proportioned just a little incorrectly. The eyes in particular were wide, and meeting their gaze was intimidating.

“I’m not a subsidiary, Mr. Mayfair. I’m a person.”

“A person with skills we need. Do you truly believe that you can find him?”

“Absolutely,” she said. “As long as I’ve got… this!”

She held the device up to the camera while flipping its switch with one of her strangely jointed thumbs.

“Yes, exactly,” said Carlton Mayfair. “Now…”

“Wait!” she said. “Wait, it didn’t work. Don’t say anything. I think it’s… the battery casing wire’s not done, hang on.”

Nectra grabbed a tool from the bench beneath her and started mending the wiring.

“I understand that…”

“Nothing!” said Nectra. “Don’t say anything. I blew that, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I jumped the gun, didn’t double check everything.”

“It’s fine.”

“And then you give the perfect set up line. ‘Do you truly believe that you can find him?’ Then I just saw myself holding it up and it crackling to life, so I forgot to finish…”

“It’s really fine.”

“There,” she said. She put down the tool. “Done.”

“Good,” he said. “Now, remember…”

“Say it again.”

“Excuse me?”

“Ask me again.”

Mayfair stared into Nectra’s eyes. They must have taken up a fourth of her face. If she’d been a cartoon character it would have been adorable, but as it was…

“Can you truly locate him?”

“Of course I can… with this!”

She held up the device and flicked its switch with her thumb. After a moment, she struck the device against the pillar to her left and it glowed with a green light, issuing a faint ping every few seconds.

“Marvelous.”

“Thanks again, by the way,” she said. “For years, they said that it wasn’t possible to build a miniaturized Virellium Force Energy Detector. It’s an understandable thought, of course. With the iota of Virellium needed to power such devices, they’d normally only be able to detect themselves. As you know, I’ve overcome the problem by…”

“I don’t need to be told,” he said. “As YOU know, you’ve already told me. We understand there’s a bit of a risk letting you go like this, but with your expertise in all things Virellium we’re hoping that you’ll be able to find Zack Gamma if his former coworkers cannot.”

“Oh, I almost hope they do,” she said. She flipped down from her perch and the wings at her back fluttered just enough to maintain her balance as she grabbed the staff on the short drop to the floor.

“If they do, you won’t prove your theory,” said Mayfair. “You also won’t have our assistance in releasing you from prison.”

“I know,” she said, glumly twirling her staff. “But there’s some romance there. Murdered by your own company for an unknown crime. It’s a beautiful way to die.”

“I’m glad you see it that way,” said Mayfair. “I don’t personally care one way or the other if he dies, but Bristlecorp has its standards and there’s just no talking to some people.”

“Are you sure you can’t tell me some of what’s happening behind the scenes there, Mr. Mayfair?”

Nectra leaned forward and smiled at the camera, showing the sharp teeth that contributed to her species’ nickname. The Bat People, or Vampire Bat People as some called them, hadn’t been referred to as such in polite society for decades, but it was easy for Mayfair to see where the name had started for the Shangmere. He returned Nectra’s stare as forcefully as he could until she finally turned away, looking at the screen on her new gadget.

“Message received,” she said.

“I’ve never broken a non-disclosure agreement in my life, Nectra,” he said. “I’m not going to start with Bristlecorp.”

“Probably smart,” she said. She stared at the screen, growing less lively and more contemplative.

“If I had to guess, I’d say that you weren’t nearly as crazy as people say.”

“I’m not,” she said. “I’m really not. You know I’m not.”

“I know,” he said. “And once you prove that your Virellium Force Energy Detector works… say, by locating someone who’s been in contact with it… such as Zack Gamma… then we’ll have hard evidence we can use to reopen your case. Good luck out there, Nectra. It’s been almost a week since Gamma disappeared, and someone like him won’t stay contained to a single planet for long.”