Tag Archives: Vox Cul-Dar

Episode 167: Rock Beats Pauper

“You sure picked a great place to head, Gamma,” said Chala, cutting through a branch with her machete.

“It looked close,” he said, wheezing as he followed behind. The pain in his chest was growing sharper instead of staying at the dull and hollow pain he’d been managing with. “And it’s… more or less on the way to the field where I landed. Carmen’s gonna need to get me off the planet eventually.”

“If she survived reentry,” Chala said.

“I don’t think she’ll be coming down on an actual asteroid, I think she’s gonna get a ship… Hope she hasn’t already landed, honestly. Hope she’s not too worried about me…”

“I think she’ll have other things to worry about, if you’re anything to go by,” she said. “How’re you holding up back there?”

Zack coughed and waved his hand dismissively. Chala stopped and looked over her shoulder.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I mean… I feel like I’m dying, but apart from that I’ll be good.”

“If you say so,” she said, turning forward again and resuming the walk. “We’re almost there, but between you and me I think that fight with Nectra took a lot out of you, and I’m pretty sure she was holding back.”

Zack didn’t comment, but continued his walk through the ill-defined “trail” that Chala was either discovering or creating as they moved. The scent of the world’s humid air, baking clay, steaming mud, and spongy trees wasn’t comforting. Why was he dying despite being, as far as he could tell, healthy?

Chala reached the edge of a clearing, but paused and held up a hand. The field before her was clear and covered with a crumbly, moss-like vegetation, and a cool wave seemed to be coming from it.

“What?” said Zack.

“We can’t go this way.”

Zack resisted the urge to say that it looked fine to him. He stared into the cool clearing and couldn’t see anything immediately dangerous. He glanced at Chala’s eyes and saw calculated concern, though not immediate worry.

“What’s the problem?”

Suddenly, from the trees above, a figure in a green robe dropped into view between Zack and Chala, an insect-like figure who swept his leg in an arc that immediately dropped Zack to the ground. The trajectory of the leg sweep continued, but Chala was both faster and had more time to react, jumping back and aiming her bow at the figure.

Zack looked up, and stared into the bug-like eyes of Vox Cul-Dar. He jumped up and backward, twisting over Chala’s leg and throwing off her aim before landing. She twisted in place and fired the arrow at the alien, but Vox’s hand was faster, sweeping forward to connect with the projectile and continuing the arc to effectively throw it into a nearby tree.

“The next one goes into you or Gamma,” he said, staring into Chala’s eyes.

“That’s not likely,” she said. “My aim was off that time.”

“Mine wasn’t,” he said, smiling. “And it won’t be. The gift of the tea is fading, but I feel certain of this.”

“Tea?” said Chala, letting the tip of her arrow drop. The humidity seemed to intensify and the heat of the jungle seemed even worse than a moment earlier.

“I wouldn’t push him,” said Zack, shakily massaging his ankle. “I’ve never seen him do that before, but if he can do it once he can do it again.”

“You stay on the ground, Zack,” said Vox. “Until victory is assured, I won’t have you ambling about. You have a talent for misdirection, and opportunities for evasion are always in abundance.”

“Just lucky I guess,” said Zack.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Gamma. These opportunities are everywhere. You just know how to take advantage of them.”

“Get up, Zack,” said Chala, pulling another arrow from her quiver and feeling another wave of heat. “Even sick you were almost a match for Nectra. Between the two of us, odds are still on our side.”

“Before he could get to a knee or pull one of his pistols from his holsters, I would destroy your bow and nullify your ability to assist,” said Vox. “You seem martially sound, so I will do you the honor of not assuming that you would be dead so quickly, but that would follow shortly thereafter.”

“Martially sound?”

“He’s good enough at physical combat that he knows what he’s talkin’ about,” said Zack. “Studied it professionally, and that was before he joined the DMA and got hands-on experience. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, but he probably thinks he’s good enough to gauge how good someone is in a fight before fighting ‘em.”

“I may have overestimated my capabilities before,” he said. “But I’ve got an extra ace in the hole this time.”

Another wave of incredible heat rushed in, heralding the arrival of Igneous, pushing her way through the trees that singed at her touch. Her molten eyes glared with stern determination, and her gravelly fists easily cleared the path.

“You were right,” said Igneous. “They came right here. …Hello, Zack.”

Zack looked at the towering figure of Igneous and his heart sank.

“Well then… rock beats PI. We can’t win this, Chala.”

“So, what, you want me to just stand here while you kill Zack?”

“No,” said Igneous. “Vox and I have a deal. Zack lives.”

“For now,” said Vox. “If you wouldn’t mind, now that my reinforcement has arrived, would you help your friend up? We have a bit of a walk to go, and Gamma looks like he’s in no shape for it. Then again, neither is Igneous with how long it took her to arrive. She should bring up the rear to keep an eye on you two.”

Advertisements

Episode 164: The Shape of Fire

Igneous sat in the clearing by Vox’s tent, sweltering near the sculpted mound of dry ice she’d positioned in the fire pit. That the ice itself was shaped like a traditional human campfire wasn’t lost on her and, in fact, was part of why she decided to pick up the small mound of cardice for her supplies. The “campfire-shaped sculpture” was rough and clearly made for humans just looking for vague shapes at parties, but it served her needs to a degree. She’d informed its maker that the Pyrhian word for the shape was Comcora, a word that might do better at selling to other Pyrhians than “campfire-shape”. She doubted anything would come from it, but she’d always liked the word.

After the purchase, she’d considered breaking it up so that she could cover herself in the material, but the risk of shattering when in contact with extreme colds remained. She didn’t know how much longer she could last, but for right now she was willing to cool herself by the camp ice.

A rustling from the planet’s strange foliage heralded the arrival of Vox Cul-Dar. He slowly entered the campsite, pulling a net behind him, one that Igneous saw contained an unconscious Shangmere. She looked up at Vox as the bounty hunter dropped the ropes he’d been using to drag the net. He approached the campfire, eyeing the cardice carefully.

“You’ve replaced my fire pit with a block of ice, I see,” he said. “That explains why I’ll be chilly tonight.”

“You were expectin’ to be cold in this humidity?”

“Just a feeling,” he said. “Which is quite a feat if you’re around, I must say. You’re truly not looking well, Igneous. Are you certain that you’re up for catching Zack and Fletch.”

“Fletch and Zack,” she said. “Though I note that you’ve brought us neither. I thought you said you’d bear great fruits.”

“Oh, I have,” he said. “I know you want us to focus on Fletch first, and we will, but I believe this creature is imperative to locating Gamma at all. Zack will encounter her again.”

“Well, he is a stupid human,” she said. “He likes to help. I wouldn’t expect him to rush into danger just to rescue a friend who could probably handle themselves, but I saw him more or less do just that in Helix.”

“Igneous, are you suggesting that we send a note to Gamma, informing him that we have his friend held hostage and that we will terminate her if he doesn’t surrender?”

“No, but I thought you were going to,” said Igneous. “That seems like your way of thinkin’ when you can’t punch or kick someone into captivity.”

“Perhaps it is,” said Vox. “For Zack, though, we won’t need any such ruse. Behold…”

He reached into his backpack and withdrew a horrible, green hat with an antenna sticking out of the crown. Igneous took a step back.

“You were right on his tail, then,” she said. “How’d you get that?”

“I picked it up from her,” he said. “I had a hunch that I’d meet her, and the hat contained a note written in Zack’s handwriting.”

“You know his handwriting? Vox, you’re takin’ this hunt too seriously.”

“Not for the reward the DMA is offering I’m not, and neither is Fletch, wherever she is. In any event, this was a very helpful note, one that will, I expect, take us directly to Gamma when he finally rears his hatless head.”

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 147: Heed ‘Em

Zack coughed and stopped pushing through the underbrush. The heat of the jungle and the soft soil would have wearied him on the best of days, and today was worse than normal. Nectra glided back to his position from up ahead and watched him hacking and wheezing between the alien vegetation.

“Are you okay? You need to sit down for a bit?”

“Nah, I’m good,” said Zack. “I’ve just gotta stop smoking.”

“You smoke?”

“No, but I could pick it up. Any sight of the Lusca Vine?”

“The what?”

Zack stared at Nectra before shaking his head.

“Sorry, I mean… any sight of The Phantom Matador?”

“Yes!” she said, excited. “There’s a clearing ahead. The tracker points right to it, and he’s sitting right there, with a campfire. I think he’s ready. Is this running someone to ground? Did we run someone to ground?”

“I think we’ve gotta catch him first before we’ve run him to ground,” said Zack. “Idioms were never my strong suit. I think he’s run to ground, though. Maybe. Don’t the shangmere have sayings like that? ‘Fly him to web’ or something?”

“A few!” said Nectra. “Though we don’t have that one. Maybe we should? Flying doesn’t really come up very often as a hunting thing for us. I think the martial artists talk about it more?”

“Shouldn’t you know about that, then?”

“Why?”

“Well, you seem pretty martially artistic.”

“Oh, thanks! I’m not, though. I’m really not. This is just a hobby, and I’m more interested in the balancing part of it. Helps keep me focused!”

“Remind me to never cross an actual shangmere fighter, then,” said Zack, clearing his throat. “You’re pretty good from what I’ve seen. Now let’s… keep moving on. I’ve gotta make sure not to cough on my way into that clearing. I want to make sure he’s in my sights before he even knows that I’m there.”

***

“Your plan was sound,” said Vox, walking along the gentle trail that left the city of the Azurebacks. “And, in truth, there were some rumblings that Rendelac was able to translate that sound as if they relate to Zack Gamma. How did you plan on speaking to the Sthenites, though?”

Igneous reached to her back and moved a small, brown and red pack, one that Vox had assumed to be an oddly colored patch of rock that protruded from a shoulder. She opened the pack and a wave of cool mist billowed from within.

“I have basic supplies. A translation device is included. I don’t know if I could’ve picked up enough dialog for it to work, but I was willing to try.”

“Hmm. Well, fortunately for you, Rendelac and I were welcomed to the conversation. There was an instance of someone, referred to as Star Prey. This word might have applied to myself if Fletch hadn’t tried to detonate me. This Star Prey has been accepted by someone from another world, and may be facing a sort of trial to determine worth by the society. If this other Star Prey is, in fact, Zack Gamma, then we may have found our prey.”

“Our first target is Fletch,” said Igneous, sliding the pack over her back again. “Don’t forget that we need to find her first, Vox.”

“You think I’ll delay catching Zack for your whim?”

“I’m gonna die here, and you want money,” said Igneous. “For right now, I think your goal is closer to being a whim than mine. Humor me here.”

“Our deal did not specify that-”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “Binding oneself to the letter of the law leaves you subject to the letters of those whose good will you may later seek.”

“Yeah,” said Igneous. “Heed ‘em.”

Vox stopped walking. He reached into his own pack and pulled out Rendelac. The thin computer’s eye was glowing orange.

“Don’t think finding an ally will dissuade me any further.”

“You are free to act as you will, Vox Cul-Dar. My advice remains just as valid whether or not others support it.”

Vox frowned and pushed Rendelac back into his pack.

“And I am just as free to ignore the advice.”

“You carry around a philosophy computer just so that you can ignore it?” said igneous. “Someone’s gotta teach you a few lessons about packin’ light.”

“Rendelac’s teachings are often sound. When they apply to my situation, they are very worthwhile.”

“Fancy computer like that probably thinks what it has to say applies to your life just fine. Don’t blame it for doin’ its job, Vox.”

“Your opinion on what I do with my cultural heritage has been noted. Regardless, perhaps I was hasty. We will seek both Zack Gamma and Fletch. I expect this partnership to endure as we deal with both targets, though. I won’t have you abandoning me once we reclaim your Teles.”

“Right,” said Igneous. “Perish the thought.”

The Azureback Encounter

“We will miss you, Sky-Carrion, but wish you well tonight as you depart,” said Weshar, repeating the words that the Chief Healer could not, by tradition, speak to people from other worlds. The Chief Healer nodded her head approvingly as Weshar intoned the rehearsed words. Vox Cul-Dar stood, bandaged and bruised but able, with Rendelac in the pack that he wore on his back. His robes had been damaged in the explosion that led to his designation as Sky-Carrion, but he had been able to clean them in exchange for his own information, information from the Rhythnian Boutique’s catalog that he was, in effect, trading back to the tribe that had culturally led to the boutique’s founding. Much of his knowledge came from offworld Sthenites taking advantage of the luxuries of Veskid’s civilization, though, so he wasn’t sure how much would be useful in the long term.

Rendelac chimed and translated Weshar’s words just as Weshar spoke the Chief Healer’s. Vox leaned against a walking stick (easily found from the drier fire wood that the Sthenites collected) and sipped more of the tea that he had come to enjoy. He nodded.

“Tell them that I am grateful for their hospitality, but that I must now leave. There is a great beast of earth and fire even now approaching them, and I would speak to it. It means them no harm, but goodness knows it may mean harm to me.”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “I caution against speaking falsehoods.”

“This is not a falsehood, Rendelac. It is a premonition. My destiny awaits us.”

Rendelac buzzed and spoke to the Azurebacks who had gathered to see his departure. The Chief Healer nodded and gestured to their city’s gates, giving him free passage to leave. The gates were situated next to the river that flowed through the town, a river that was not impeded by the city’s wall by virtue of the gates locked into place, gates that allowed the water to flow through while impeding the progress of potential invaders.

Vox approached the gate and a massive, red and blue-scaled Sthenite pushed the door open for him. A surprised susurrus of hisses and trills issued from the crowd as a mist, thick and roiling, poured through the door. Other Sthenites responded in more reasonable hisses to the worried crowd as Vox stepped into the ankle-high cloud.

“This is unseasonable,” said rendelac. “Fog and mist only emerge from their river at other times of the year, and then it manages to creep up from the portion of the river within the city as well. Reportedly some of the guards on the wall noted the unusual cloud bank that crept up in the late afternoon, and have been puzzled as to why it stopped right at the wall this evening.”

“Thank you for the information,” said Vox, turning to wave at the Sthenites as the door closed again, hurriedly pushed by the same Sthenite who opened it. “It does not change what I know of what is happening, but it does alter the context for how the Sthenites observe it.”

“Please share what you know of the scenario, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “You have been curiously prescient.”

“All will be made clear, once it gets foggier,” said Vox, stepping closer to the river bank where the mist was thicker. “Or perhaps steamier… this fog is warm and humid, not cold and clammy as I expected. It makes sense, though.”

“Does it?”

“To me, at least,” said Vox. “And, I presume, to our associate. Reveal yourself, intruder! You know who I am, and I know who you are, so this continued attempt at clumsy hiding helps neither of us, Igneous.”

Silence crept over the waters until, with a burbling splash, a dull-orange glow rose from the water, still obscured by the thick steam. The figure took steps to the shoreline until Igneous became visible, a towering pillar of orange and red interspersed with blackened, charred husks.

“How did you know it was me?” said Igneous, increasing the heat around Vox. Vox reflexively tried waving the hand with his wooden tea cup in the air to clear the extra humidity.

“The local culture is well worth investigating, Igneous. I take it that you’ve arrived to seek Zack Gamma?”

“You might say that,” said Igneous.

“You wouldn’t be trying to help him, would you?”

“If I was, it would be no business of yours,” said Igneous. “But I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

“You’ve spent too long among the humans to use such an idiom,” said Vox. “Though from the look of you, frying things may soon be your best career option.”

“That’s the main reason I’m here,” said Igneous. “Fletch is here.”

“Yes, I know,” said Vox. “We met… what does that have to do with anything?”

“She… threatened me. She’s carrying a dose of Teles.”

“Is she, now? That surprises me. I never would have taken her for a user.”

“She isn’t. I intended to use half of it.”

“Only half? But… last I checked, even a full dose of Teles would have little to no effect on a Pyrhian without… you mean pre-mixing, though, don’t you?”

“The frozen half of the Teles. It might delay my metamorphosis.”

“I see,” said Vox. “You know, most would just age with dignity rather than turning to such methods.”

“I’ve got business to finish before it happens,” said Igneous. “And I think I’ll need the time the Teles can buy to do that. She stole it from me, threatened me with the fiery half, and told me to stay out of her way, or help her to catch Zack if asked. I want the Teles back.”

“Naturally. As it so happens, I want her to stop getting in my way while hunting Gamma myself… I’ve an inkling of where we might find her, and an inkling of where we might find Gamma thanks to a gift from the Azurebacks. But why were you approaching their city?”

“I figured someone like Gamma would create enough of a stir to cause a commotion at some trace of civilization. This place was close enough to the landing site that word would’ve spread this far, assuming the Sthenites talk to each other.”

“Sensible. Well then… loathe though I am to splitting a bounty, it’s worse to keep someone like Fletch around. What do you say that we work as partners here? First to eliminating Fletch, and then to securing Gamma?”

Igneous’ mouth twisted into a smile, a motion visible now with her altered face.

“Good plan,” she said. “Wish I’d thought of it.”

Episode 134: Information, Influence, and Infamy

“This is amazing. It’s only a fraction of what it will be, but it’s amazing. The insight it gives… mustn’t get lost in the moment, though, lest it lead to a migraine.”

Vox took his first sip of the tea. He sat next to a warm fire, and felt the soothing tea roll through him. The apprentice healer, a silver-scaled and blue-feathered Sthenite named Weshar, sat in a coil next to him, nodding knowingly as the village bustled around them. Most ignored them and focused on their work, but a few of the younger ones lingered in curious groups to see the Sky-Carrion and his box that could talk and, more impressively, think.

“What gives insight, Vox Cul-Dar?” asked Rendelac, sitting next to Vox on the log that he had pulled from the pile of firewood to avoid sitting on the ground.

“I knew you would ask that,” said Vox, nodding back to Weshar. “Vox, would you tell our friend how happy I was to learn that I had been found… saved, even… by the Azurebacks.”

Rendelac issued a series of tweets, trills and hisses. Weshar watched the thin, black computer as its eye shifted from green to purple and back again. Rendelac was still not fluent in the Sthenite language, but his understanding was growing. The computer paused mid-hiss, and Weshar watched curiously.

“Theshtreshar,” said Vox. “The word you want is Theshtreshar.”

Rendelac’s eye changed to orange.

“What makes you so certain, Vox Cul-Dar?”

“These are the Azurebacks,” said Vox. “Most of the Sthenites who came to Veskid and created the Rythnian Boutique were Azurebacks, and there was great information about their culture.”

Rendelac’s eye remained orange, but it changed in hue and intensity, becoming darker and softer.

“I had the opportunity to witness much of your research, Vox Cul-Dar.”

“But not all of it.”

“No, but I find it unlikely that you found a comprehensive vocabulary.”

“Believe what you wish, Rendelac,” said Vox. He took another sip of the tea, and raised it in salute to Weshar, who watched the gesture without comprehension. “The boutique offered great insight.”

“Do not confuse knowledge for insight, Vox Cul-Dar. Or information for knowledge.”

“How can one have knowledge without information?”

“They can’t. But they may have lumber without a home, if the lumber has not yet been properly built.”

“That is… one of the classic truths,” said Vox. “It is strange that I forgot.”

“You have not studied the wisdom of Rendelac in quite some time, Vox Cul-Dar. A flaming coal will grow cool if denied oxygen for fuel and the companionship of other coals.”

“Perhaps I made the tea improperly, too. There are mind-affecting effects, after all. Anyway… continue thanking him for me, please. Theshtreshar.”

After a quiet moment where Rendelac’s eye stared at Vox, the eye swiveled back to Weshar and Rendelac began speaking in the local Sthenite tongue. Vox watched the locals work while Rendelac spoke, and waved to a cluster of the young who were watching from nearby. The young feathered serpents seemed to panic and quickly slithered away at being noticed. While not all of the Azurebacks had truly azure backs, there was an overabundance of blues, bluish purples and bluish greens on the scales and feathers of the assembled. Vox wasn’t sure how this compared to other Sthenite groups, but he assumed that there was a difference.

Rendelac stopped speaking and Weshar began hissing and trilling in response.

“He says that we are quite welcome, and he, in turn, thanks us for our, well… ‘explosive injury’ is the best translation, though it is not a literal one… and he hopes that the Cerulean Tea is as soothing as you had hoped.”

“It is,” said Vox, taking another sip. It was warm, and he could feel different parts of his mind pulling into sharper focus while others became murky. It would not be dangerous in such small quantities, but he still wanted to know how it would function in advance.

“So tell me,” he said with a smile, “how does one say Cerulean?”

Rendelac’s eye shifted to blue. Vox wasn’t sure if the blue shift was an emotional response, or if Rendelac had control over the appearance and was choosing to make the color fit the question.

“As you know… the word for Cerulean is Theshtreshar. It’s an unusually specific shade of blue, and unusual that you would ask when you already have this knowledge.”

“I’m exchanging information for insight,” said Vox. “I have plenty of lumber now, and I wish to build my house.”

Episode 132: Sky-Carrion

Vox Cul-Dar’s bulbous eyes snapped open.

He was in both pain and a large hut made of sturdy logs and stone. The roof looked like it was made of a forest floor, and dim light filtered in through a trio of holes that probably passed for windows in this society. Pulling himself into a sitting position he saw that he was on a small mat made of woven leaves and reeds. Other mats filled the room and a purple-scaled Sthenite with a grievous wound in its side was motionless on another. Tiny pots and jars lined the walls.

“I rise a new person, prepared for a new day, prepared for my future,” said Vox Cul-Dar, automatically reciting the words for the second time on this jungle world. His jaw hurt while speaking. His sides hurt while sitting. His head gently throbbed with pain.

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said the voice of Rendelac, sitting on a cushion of reeds at the head of the simple bed. “You have been through a great ordeal and experienced incredible trauma from a concussive force. Had you not leaped from Fletch’s explosive, you would have surely perished.”

“I feel as if everything is bruised,” Vox said, quickly examining himself. His tunic had been removed, making it easy to see numerous abrasions and areas where the green was turning a sickly shade of orange. “This is a hospital of some sort?”

“Yes,” said Rendelac. “The explosion drew the attention of the Sthenites, in particular one named Surshen. I have found them to be intelligent and wise in their handling of you and your situation.”

“How so?”

“Judging from what I’ve been able to translate of their language, their understanding of biochemistry was sufficient to determine how to give you quick treatments. They avoided certain medicines, saying that they may harm ‘other worlders’ but treated you with others that they felt would be safe.”

“I see. Were they correct?”

“In one instance, yes,” said Rendelac. “However, I believe most of their previous experience with people from other worlds has come from humans. It may please you to know that while most Other Worlders gain a certain term in their tongue, they have determined it does not apply to you.”

“Oh? What is this term?”

“Starprey.”

“Hmm. Yes… better to be at the mercy of their medicine than at the skill of their hunters.”

“Instead, they have taken to calling you Sky-Carrion.”

Vox narrowed his eyes.

“I think I like that. But I’m not sure.”

“There is a certain rough-and-tumble appeal to it, Vox Cul-Dar. Feel free to take joy in the term, but do not let it cloud your judgement about who you are.”

“Have no fear of that,” said Vox. “I come from their sky, was left for dead when I should have died, and I have risen again. I am under no misconceptions about who I am.”

He started rising to his feet, but the dull ache that stretched all the way down his legs quickly became a sharp, almost tearing sensation and he dropped back to the mat.

“Though I admit I may not have recovered as fully as I’d hoped.”

“This endeavor has taken a great toll on you, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “I fear it is transformative. I fear even more that it is merely a capstone of the path you have walked for years. You must rest.”

“Perhaps,” said Vox. He looked at the Sthenite on the other mat. The snake-like alien ruffled its feathers, giving the first indication Vox had seen that it was alive.

“Perhaps I shall stay a bit longer,” he said. “However, I must not tarry. How regularly do they check on their captives?”

“You are a patient.”

“How regularly do they check on their patients?”

“Regularly,” said Rendelac. “The Sthenite in charge of medical care enters every forty-five minutes, a time scale that fits their planetary rotation.”

“I will wait for another treatment from this medical caretaker of mine,” said Vox. “I will take more medicine. I trust they are receptive to you?”

“Yes, they have encountered computers before, presumably from other off-worlders. I could not understand the entirety of what they said to me, but they were civil enough to leave me near your bed.”

“With my limbs free for gesturing and your linguistic capabilities, perhaps we can convey which medicines will be most beneficial without poisoning me. I may have just lost the chase for Gamma to Fletch, Rendelac. That doesn’t sit well with me, but you are right that I have been pushing myself. Perhaps just a little longer… why do you think she set a bomb, Rendelac?”

“You are asking about Fletch’s motivations? This is difficult. She has never seemed like the other humans in the Desperate Measures Agency. She values things differently than others. My belief is that she set the explosive as an act of kindness.”

“Kindness?” said Vox, whipping his head in Rendelac’s direction and instantly regretting it. Pain radiated from his spine, encouraging him to lie back onto the bed.

“You had the dexterity required to avoid the blast, especially with the timer set after you triggered it. You were disoriented, but you were found by the natives. Killing you would have been simple, and she knew how to do it. Given your physical training and physiological differences from a human… that bomb slowed you down without ending your life.”

“I see. I can’t wait to receive her Get Well Soon noose.”

“Either way, you need to take the time to rest, Vox Cul-Dar.”

“I will take some time,” said Vox. “Not as much as you’d like, though. Or as much as she would like. We only have a limited amount of time to return her act of charity in kind.”

Episode 131: L’esprit de le Salon

Surshen’s story yielded confusing bounty. The Starprey was different than any other, so different in fact that it was decided, after much deliberation within the tribe, to not be Starprey at all. Prey was what you hunted, not what you found struggling to live.

No sport could be had with such an intruder, and like a child taking in a wounded flame serpent so did the tribe decide that, at least in this case, the wounded would be cared for.

***

The sun was setting, and the stars were just becoming visible in this region of Mandrake. The Phantom Matador finished balancing the logs and twigs in front of the cave he had chosen for the evening. Carefully, he maneuvered the handle of his energy blade and activated it so that the searing sword would be in contact with the pile without destroying it. In moments it began to smoke and, with a few quick breaths, it caught fire. Satisfied, the Matador pulled the mask back in front of his face and deactivated the blade.

“Lots of secrecy for someone just trying to make do in a jungle.”

The Phantom Matador looked over his shoulder and saw Zack Gamma. He placed the deactivated pommel of the sword into its mostly-decorative charging sheathe, and turned to face the detective.

“There are those on this planet who would profit by my identity, Gamma. The price on my head may not be as high as yours, but it remains. How did you locate me so quickly?”

“I spoke to Chala… the lady you stole the Fact from.”

“She had no idea where I had gone.”

“No, but I also spoke to Nectra, and she had some amazing insights into finding you.”

“I see… so, Nectra has decided to work with you instead of killing you. Pity. She needs you dead to get the support she needs for her case to be reopened, you know.”

“That’s a bridge to cross later.”

“Yes. It still doesn’t explain how you found me. She’s hidden with me a few times, but never when I’ve been hiding on my own.”

“I couldn’t have found you without Nectra’s help, though. Or Chala’s. Or yours, really.”

“Excuse me.”

“Hate to say it, Mat… can I call you Mat?…”

“Mat?”

“Short for Matador. Hate to say it, Mat, but the Fact wasn’t the only thing that Chala had in her forge.”

“Yes. She stockpiled Virellium, though it was unpurified. A suitable treasure, but not one that interests me more than my own survival.”

“Yeah… about that. It’s everywhere in there, buddy.”

“I fail to see the relevance.”

Zack reached into his coat and pulled out a device, a box with a screen and an antenna that the Matador had seen in operation before.

“The tracker,” he said. “The device that Nectra used to find you.”

“The Gamma Tracker’s an astounding piece of technology, I’ll give ya that. It led me right to you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t track me specifically. It tracks Virellium and people who’ve been exposed to it. So right now… right this second… there’s only three humans on the planet that it can find. One of them’s me, and I’m not interested in tracking Chala. But buddy, you spent more than enough time in that forge to qualify.”

“Incredible,” he said. “The device works wonders, then. It’s hard to believe that Nectra couldn’t prove it worked.”

“There aren’t that many people who’ve encountered Virellium,” said Zack. “It’s not common, she couldn’t do any tests. Heck, if Chala hadn’t been stockpiling it, I’d probably be the only person on the planet that it came after. Scientifically speakin’, that wouldn’t even be a good test, it’d just mean that it could track me for some reason. Tracking two wanted fugitives who only have this single thing in common, though? That’s scientifically noteworthy. Might even help to get Nectra’s case reopened. Plus, now it doesn’t matter that you’re so good at slipping away. This thing will find you anywhere. No matter where you go or how fast you run, Nectra’s tracker can follow you. And with her notes, more can be made. We’ll figure out who you are before you know we’re looking. Turn yourself in now, Matty, and maybe I’ll get you off this planet and into police custody on Veskid instead of seeing whatever passes for justice among the Sthenites. I’ve got a feeling they’re tough but fair, which is great news for folks like me but just awful for murderers like you.”

The Matador turned and walked a few paces from Zack, holding his chin. He looked up at the sky, and saw the pale green fading to a beautiful black.

“So… you say you want to figure out who I am?”

“Of course I do.”

“Does this mean, then… does this mean that you were mistaken about who you thought I was? Or are you no longer so sure?”

“What’re you talking about?” said Zack.

“When we were up in the sky… in that big, black, beautiful dance of stars and planets and asteroids before we fell into this unforgiving world… you said that you’d figured out who I was. And you said some things… some things that made me wonder if you had.”

Zack thought back to the asteroid. Something about the Phantom Matador’s words rang true. He didn’t recall the event, but there was definitely something there.

“I… don’t think you can blame a guy for wanting to double check.”

“Tell me who I am, detective,” said the Phantom Matador. “I challenge you. Tell me who you thought I was, at least. Earn your parlor scene. Or am I to remain ‘Mat’ to you, then? A harmless nickname to mask your own failure?”

“This ain’t about me,” said Zack. “You comin’ quietly or not?”

The matador looked back at Zack Gamma, just as a breeze caught his cape and lifted it behind him. He reached down to the hilt of his energy sword, drew it, and activated the shimmering blade of light just as a shooting star fell through the night sky behind him.

“Never,” said the impossibly cinematic phantom before fading from view.

“Nice exit,” said Zack, checking the screen of the tracker. “But let’s see how long you can keep ahead of me.”

Episode 119: Mine and Mire

“Heed my words, Vox Cul-Dar. The time has come for you to wake.”

Vox’s bulbous eyes snapped open.

“I rise a new person, prepared for a new day, prepared for my future,” he said, automatically reciting the words that had been part of the first few moments of cognitive thought of every waking since he had first joined the monastery as a child. He scanned the compartment, a room with a low ceiling and long shadows cast from broken windows. He saw little dust, but dirt and leaves littered the compartment. When he recognized the molded plastic in the center of the room as the frame for a chair, the purpose of the chamber came to his mind.

“How did I get in a space ship?” he said. “And… Rendelac, what’s become of Fletch?”

“Fletch left you here after I requested that she not severely wound you to hinder your further progress. You have been unconscious for nearly seven hours. Vox Cul-Dar, I-”

“Seven hours… she’s got an incredible head start, then. We’ll have to hurry.”

“I would ask you, not for the first time, to refrain from this task, Vox Cul-Dar. She left you here when I gave my word to ask you to stop. She represents a more active danger than the already problematic environment of this world.”

“I appreciate your concern, Rendelac, but-”

“Forgive my interruption, but I believe we are sinking.”

Vox looked around the shuttle interior. He located Rendelac sitting on the top of some of his other possessions in the ship’s chair. He picked up the computer and twirled his pack onto his back.

“Sinking?”

“I was trying to rouse you from your slumber for two hours. The problem is now quite dire. Our elevation is gradually decreasing, and I fear that the remains of this vessel are submerging into the swamp.”

“You should have mentioned this sooner,” said Vox, jumping to one of the broken windows. The twisted trees and choked vegetation beyond sat in a stagnant sea of green. The incredible humidity and stench of decay was almost comfortable to Vox, and the gentle curve of the ship’s hull provided ample purchase for him to scramble up and out.

“I apologize,” said Rendelac. “You had other questions, and my programming dictated that I answer them, to a point.”

“How fortunate I am that the original Rendelac coded you to eventually concede the all-important etiquette for quick responses to danger.”

“The vessel would likely not have become truly dangerous for another twenty minutes.”

“Oh, I see. Why hurry at all then?”

“The swampy terrain beyond the vessel might have altered by our sinking, and as such-”

“That was sarcasm, Rendelac.”

“A sarcastic tongue is an exercise for a mind in disarray.”

“I am aware of the teachings,” said Vox. He stood upon the ship and scanned the horizon. He saw a tree-covered shoreline a mere dozen feet away, and some other fallen debris created a workable path back to the jungle for one of his skills. He carefully slid down the sloping edge of the vessel.

“Did Fletch happen to say why she barged through the jungles until she found a swamp just for dispatching me?”

“She was apparently very knowledgeable of the region. She knew this swamp would be here, and that it was the assumed final resting place of a vessel that had crashed when an adventurous entrepreneur crash-landed after an attempt to begin a logging and mining operation. He was desperate to leave after the locals realized the extent to which his presence would disrupt their environment, but did not begin flying away until after the Sthenites had time to sabotage his ship.”

“Sthenites,” said Vox, carefully hopping from the ship to a log wedged between the vessel and a small pile of rocks and silt. “I should have researched this world more, just as it appears that Fletch has… Sthenites are the creatures that resemble Terran serpents, but with feathers?”

“Yes,” said Rendelac. “You are aware of them?”

“The Rythnian Boutique had two as founding members,” said Vox. “After being abducted from their own world, they escaped on Veskid but found that they could do well for themselves. The poisons on Mandrake are second to none, and with the Desperate Measures Agency’s headquarters so near there was a high demand for their specialized knowledge.”

“A curious coincidence,” said Rendelac.

“A beneficial one,” said Vox, hopping to the rock pile and carefully gaging the leap to what looked like a relatively benign clump of a sargasso-like weed. “Their knowledge allowed me to find the Cerulean Bloom after we landed here.”

He landed on the clump of weeds and was at first relieved to find that the clump was thick and strong enough to support his weight, but some of the vines whipped around his leg.

“Ugh… alien plant life,” he said. He reached down and started untwisting the vine.

“The manner of that twist did not appear to be the result of locomotion on the plant’s part,” said Rendelac. “It almost appeared mechanical. Strange, considering that the plant appears capable of moving on its own, albeit in a different way.”

“A fluke of circumstance, then.”

A strange, high-pitched beep filled the air.

“Rendelac, was that you?”

“Negative. The noise issued from the vegetation currently entwined around your leg.”

Another beep sounded. Vox moved aside the vegetative clumps and took a sharp intake of breath at the appearance of a timer counting down seconds, affixed within the plant.

“Rendelac, what is-”

“Danger!” said Rendelac. “Possibility of an explosive device high!”

Vox stopped talking and started unfurling the vine. Obviously a trap left by Fletch to eliminate him from a distance if the murk didn’t finish him off sooner. With only a moment, he peeled the vine from his leg, jumped, and cursed as the vine reflexively twisted around his arm, pulling the explosive clump of vegetation along with him just a moment before it detonated.

Episode 108: Jungle Predators

Igneous pushed aside a branch, stepped through, and removed her hand just as it started smoking. She didn’t think there was any real danger of her presence starting a forest fire amide these trees… most of them appeared too damp, and sometimes too spongy, to catch flame easily. Still, the occasional clouds from the branches she touched were beginning to worry her.

She checked her tracker again. The signal from Zack’s landing site was drawing nearer. It wouldn’t be long before she was in visual range.

She pushed between two thorny bushes that probably would have killed most humans attempting to travel by the same route, and paused at the sight of the small ravine in her path. A narrow bridge was formed by a fallen tree. She stared at the soft, spongy bark of the tree and wondered if she could maintain her balance on it. She also wondered what her chances would be of the tree not catching on fire and burning itself apart while she walked over it.

She took a deep breath, again wishing she knew if deep breaths or rushing winds would feed the heat inside her. She stepped back as far as the thorny bushes would allow, and ran forward. Her usual speed was diminished in part by ground much softer than the city streets or space stations that she frequented, and she had a moment of panic as her final footstep touched the edge of the cliff and propelled her forward.

She soared through the air, realizing that she wasn’t going to go as far as she usually could on a jump. She wondered if the soft soil was to blame, or if she had grown weaker than she realized while holding off her metamorphosis.

She dropped like, as the humans would say, a stone, arcing down too sharply. She pulled an arm back and, in a moment of desperation, punched the dirt inches below the ravine’s edge. Her fist dug into the soil of the cliff, and her fall halted in an outward explosion of muddy dirt and stone. She took the chance and reached up, putting an arm over the top of the cliff. She paused and, after a second without falling, began to laugh her low, rumbling laugh. The laughing lasted much longer than it had in recent memory, but it stopped abruptly when she realized that the edge of the cliff was starting to droop down toward her.

She dug her highest arm into the ground and scrambled up, pushing herself to finish the climb before too much of the cliff gave way. Moments of worry later, she pulled herself over the edge while piles of soft dirt fell behind her. She stood, jumped away from the edge, and walked a good thirty feet before looking back.

The bridge formed by the fallen tree remained in place, and the now-wider jump where she had attempted it looked maddeningly treacherous after what she knew about the soil structure.

“Next time, jump over the bridge instead of the empty air,” she told herself.

She checked the scanner again, got a fix on Zack’s landing site, and walked through the trees. She had work to do, and no time to dwell on the close call, but an observer familiar with Pyrhian facial expressions would tell you that her usual look of stony determination had been replaced with a genuine smile.

***

Vox Cul-Dar reached into the wreckage of the robotic parachute with the tweezers he’d included in the poison mixing kit. He held back a fold of the cloth with one hand while sifting aside chipped fragments of debris until a tiny, glowing dot came into view.

“There it is,” he said. “Rendelac, I’ve found it. We can begin the examination.”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “We have a disparity of goals.”

“What do you mean?”

“You wish to remain undetected and surprise Zack Gamma,” said Vox Cul-Dar. “You also wish to examine the remains more carefully. In the clearing we are visible. In the jungle we can hide. Your desire to examine the parachute itself is, while thorough, a risk greater than any rewards you are likely to glean. I suggest taking the tracking device with us into the trees and returning it after our examination is complete. Leave the parachute.”

“Sensible as always,” said Vox Cul-Dar. “I would know more of this parachute, though. The odds are against it, but it may have other useful information.”

“It is a possibility,” said Rendelac. “And though I advise against it, if the computerized elements of the parachute remain intact, it is possible that I could discern some of what caused Zack Gamma to abandon it here.”

“Oh, yes,” said Vox. “I would very much like to know this.”

“Seek a Minyural connection,”

“That’s one of the triangular wires, yes?”

“Indeed.”

Vox looked over the parachute and found a Minyural connection port. He retrieved Rendelac from his pack, found a Minyural cord in the secondary supplies he’d brought at Rendelac’s recommendation, and connected the computer to the robotic parachute.

“Processing,” said Rendelac. “Yes, there is data here. It appears that Gamma used the parachute twice.”

“A jump before leaving Carmen’s asteroid?”

“No,” said Rendelac. “A jump after.”

“After? How is that possib-”

“Urgent, we are not alone!” said Rendelac. “Scanners indicate another!”

Vox spun in place to scan the tree line, just in time to see Fletch swinging at him with two batons, ancient Earth weapons known as escrima sticks. He raised his arms and caught the two wooden weapons with the serrated edges of his limbs.

“Too slow!” he shouted, locking them in place against each other and preventing Fletch from manipulating them. The assassin snarled and jumped back just before he kicked the air where she had been with enough force to kill. He stomped onto the ground and pulled his arms apart, an act that caused the blades to slice through the weapons, destroying them.

Unfortunately, the arm blades also severed the high-voltage wires located within the rigged weapons. The batons released their charge into both of Vox’s arms, jolting him and causing him to stagger back. In a daze he looked up at his enemy, saw the stun rifle in her hands, and blacked out when the burst of energy passed through him.

Fletch tossed the rifle to the side, stepped to the parachute, and lifted Rendelac off the ground, keeping the Minyural wire plugged in as she did so. Her cybernetic reticle scanned the trees quickly and, convinced that she was alone, lifted the thin computer high enough to look into its green, softly-glowing eye.

“You’re Vox Cul-Dar’s pet computer,” she said.

“I am no pet,” Rendelac said. “I am an adviser and councilor, meant to instruct and-”

“Pet computer,” she repeated. “Word around the DMA says that he doesn’t listen to your advice unless it’s convenient for him. You’re a sentimental reminder of his past, I’m guessing.”

“I have often considered this,” said Rendelac. “You are speaking half-truths to rattle me. I know what is true of your statements, and what is not, and though I have emotions I do not have the emotional ties required to be confused by emotional manipulation. Humans have a wonderful gift for using emotions to outsmart those who are smarter than themselves, but Rendelac has never been swayed by such tactics. I speak both of the true Rendelac and myself when I say this.”

“Fine,” said Fletch. “No tricks. Just options. You’re here for Gamma.”

“Correct,” said Rendelac.

“Awfully honest there.”

“Deception is rarely warranted. I gain nothing with a lie at this time.”

“Great. You’re going to tell me everything about Vox’s work here. How did he know Gamma would be here, how he found this clearing, what his plans are for actually catching Gamma, everything. I’ve already worked a lot of this out, and if I get the sense that you’re leaving out an important detail then I snap Cul-Dar’s neck followed by three puncture wounds to vital organs since I know that neck snapping won’t kill him immediately like it would for a human.”

“Then why-”

“So he’ll die in pain,” said Fletch. “I took special precautions to avoid anyone else being on this planet. Just me, Gamma, and the locals. I don’t have time to deal with you and Vox. You’re the kind of complication that made Zack too tough to pick up back at Helix.”

“Very well,” said Rendelac. “I will tell you everything you want to know.”

“Maybe the great wisdom of Rendelac’s got something going for it after all,” said Fletch.

“I’m sure I don’t gain anything by saying so, but Gamma’s bounty can’t be worth this trouble. Money doesn’t buy happiness.”

“I’m not an assassin or bounty hunter for the money,” said Fletch. “I’m in it for the glory. The money’s a really nice fringe benefit, though. Now, no more stalling.”

***

Igenous pushed through the trees around Zack’s landing site, took one look at the scene, and instantly stepped back into the forest. A dazed-looking Vox Cul-Dar was on the ground, and Fletch was speaking to a computer, probably the Rendelac model that he used. She had known that she would run into Fletch sooner or later, but had hoped it wouldn’t be this early. She needed to move away from the clearing. Gamma obviously wasn’t anywhere near here, and the second that Fletch looked in her direction the cybernetic reticle would register her heat signature.

Igneous pushed away from the clearing, trying to think. If the tracer had been left behind, likely in that wreckage, then how would she find Gamma? And how had Vox gotten here? There was too much information she didn’t know.

The only thing she knew for sure was that if Fletch was around, then her supply of Teles wouldn’t be too far.