Tag Archives: Vox

Episode 47: The Helix Double-Cross

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

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

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

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

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

Vox smirked.

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

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

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

“You know that’s a lie,” said Zack.

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

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

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

“Now, Zack…” Vox started.

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

“Is he dead?”

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

“Did you want to?” asked Hobbar.

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

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

“Great,” said Zack. “Lead the way.”

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

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

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

“Where are you going?” asked Chip.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is there a hot tub in the van?”

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

“And it’s got Igneous in it.”

“Igneous?” asked Carmen.

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

Carmen nodded. Hobbar returned, grinning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Greater wisdom may be yours if-”

“Quiet!” said Vox.

“Your car has been-”

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he steal something else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

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Episode 46: Service Entrance

Zack rounded the corner with Hobbar close behind. Chip trailed sluggishly, not used to keeping up with as much activity as the other two.

“We’ve not seen anyone in minutes,” Chip panted. “There’s no one after us! Let’s… let’s take a break here.”

“Not a chance,” said Zack, nearing the next door in the hallway. “Based on the kinds of rooms we’re seeing, this is a standard service floor. Now, the architecture here’s the sort that might send a city planner to the funny farm, but layouts like this tend to have extra exits for service staff, even if we’ll have to climb stairs to find them. Chefs, janitors, maintenance crew, and all the people who’ve got the jobs that keep things running smoothly. And while Murk’s definitely repurposed this building, the whole place is too clean. There’s another way in down here, and we’re getting close to it.”

Zack reached for the door, but it opened before he touched it, pulled inward by someone on the other side. Vox Cul-Dar, looking as if he’d strangled so many guards that his heart simply wasn’t in it anymore, appeared behind the door and froze at the sight of Zack Gamma.

“You?” said Vox.

“Vox!” said Zack.

“Vox?” said Hobbar.

“You!” shouted Vox, seeing Hobbar. The Crinlian took a step back, as Vox’s normally highly ordered mind spun into overdrive. When he’d first come to Murk’s headquarters, his priority had been tracking down a lead on the Phantom Matador. But after a slow and, frankly, aggravating trek through the service entrance’s security team, seeing the bounty he wanted to catch the most and the child he wanted vengeance on the most at the same time caused his mind to experience something not unlike whiplash.

He jumped at Zack, but had wasted just enough time in the shock to see the investigator draw and aim one of his Purcellian striker pistols. Vox slowed and entered a defensive stance, but Chip ran, shoulder first, into Zack, sending them both onto the ground. The gun that Zack had been carrying launched itself from his hands and slid across the floor, coming to a rest at Vox’s feet. Vox looked at the weapon, then at the man who was struggling to keep Zack pinned to the floor.

“Thank you for the assistance,” said Vox. “I don’t plan on sharing the bounty, though.”

“Don’t turn him in to the DMA,” said Chip. “Turn him in to Murk.”

“Now why would I do that?” asked Vox. Hobbar managed to inch away for a moment before Vox spotted him, glared, and willed the Crinlian to halt.

“Murk’s favors are valuable,” said Chip. “Think of what having him as an ally might bring. He’s eager to see Zack dead at his hands rather than someone else’s.”

“I doubt that Murk’s favor would be as valuable as what I’ll collect with my original plan,” said Vox. “I also don’t know why Zack is wanted by the DMA. If a higher-up has wrath equal to Murk’s but the resources of the entire agency, then I think I know who I’m working for. Now… get off my quarry.”

Zack looked up into the eyes of Vox Cul-Dar. He wasn’t in a position to run, fight, or bargain. It was the end of the line.

***

Much earlier, on another world…

Sister Barris waved Azar into the small room, and motioned for him to sit at the table. Azar sat, feeling wary and trapped. The Order of Fierce Mercy had safehouses, an assumption built from the knowledge that their clients might not be able to find legal counsel because their position was too dangerous for their location to be known to the public. Azar had grudgingly agreed to the process but had resented it.

“It’s not right,” he said. “I’m supposed to be getting a new home and retiring comfortably, not on the run in back alleys and secret buildings.”

“I know,” said Sister Barris. “It’s just until the trial, though. Once you’re passed the trial, and once the verdict comes down in your favor, this will all be over.”

“They’re looking for me,” said Azar. “I can feel it.”

“We all can,” said Barris. “They’re afraid that they’ll be losing it all. And while they don’t know where you are yet, they’re looking. That’s why we’re here.”

“Do you think we can trust anyone else in this situation?”

“Yes,” said Barris. “It may be true that everyone in this line of work has a history… just as it’s true that everyone has a history… but I think he’s the best bet you’ve got. Bristlecorp may find our safehouses, but they’ll never find the ones he’s set up.”

The door on the opposite side of the room swung open, and the agency representative entered, tossing a clipboard onto the table before sitting across from Azar. The man looked haggard, spindly, and confident, even if overworked. It was the look of a man who did exhausting work, but made sure it was done right. Azar recognized the look from his own mirror. The man doffed his hat and tossed it into the chair next to the one he’d selected for himself.

“Azar?” said the man. “Good to meet you. I’m Gamma, Zachary Gamma. Sister Barris tells me that you’ve hit some desperate times, and that’s exactly when our company can step in to help people like you.”

“Thank you,” said Azar. “I’m still not sure what you can do that isn’t already being done, though.”

“Let me worry about that,” said Zack. “I’ll be honest, I’ve never had a client in quite your position… I don’t think anyone in history’s been in exactly what you’re experiencing… but my job’s going to be all about finding exactly what it’ll take to see you get to your trial date in one piece. Nothing’s gonna take you out of the picture while I’m around, and I expect to be around for a long, long time.”

Episode 42: A Truth Set Free

Zack watched the door to the cell open and eagerly jumped inside. The room appeared to be empty, save for a chair and a device hanging from the ceiling. The device was shaped like a helmet or a light fixture, and featured a number of gently glowing lights fixed into its chrome exterior. The dome-shaped contraption glowed from beneath, and was suspended by a reinforced cable. Zack studied the room for a moment before wilting.

“She’s not here,” he said. “It’s empty.”

“No it’s not,” muttered Chip from the hallway. He typed another command into the cell’s control panel. Igneous caught the phrase and stopped peering into the room, noticing Chip’s continued work.

“Stop!” she shouted, but not before Chip finalized the command. The glow of the device in the cell faded as Zack looked over his shoulder, back to the hallway. Igneous grabbed Chip and pushed him against the wall while Hobbar watched nervously.

“What’s the problem?” asked Zack.

“He just did something to the control panel,” said Igneous.

“What’re you trying to pull?” asked Zack.

“Nothing,” said Chip. “You wanted the cell opened and accessible, and I’ve done everything I can to introduce you to the prisoner.”

“What prisoner?” asked Zack.

“That prisoner,” said Hobbar, looking into the cell beyond Zack. Zack turned around, looked back at the chair, and jumped back in surprise.

The faint outline of a figure was forming beneath the deactivated dome, a human-like shape that was gradually gaining solidity and form. The form it gained was white, like a gentle mist or cloud or steam that was gradually thickening before their eyes. In a definite moment of clarity, the mist shaped like a man became a person, transparent but definitive, garbed in a white robe that seemed to flow as a cloud. He stared at Zack in horror, his eyes growing wider with every moment. A tense second passed while the two looked at each other.

“Who…?” was all Zack could manage before the room errupted with a violent maelstrom of wind as air began circling and spinning in the chamber. The figure pointed at Zack and began to lift out of its seat as Zack felt the ground drop away from him as air pressure provided lift while making it hard to catch his breath.

The entity neared Zack, pointing, a mad look in its eyes, like a hawk staring at and through everything in its territory.

“How does your friend breathe?! Astride the rocks she moves, but how does she breathe?! Why is she not crushed on her path?!”

“It’s talking now!” shouted the chef, trying desperately to hold down the food. Already customers were rising from their tables outside the door, trying to look in through the circular windows, their attention drawn by the clatter of pots and pans being whipped about the kitchen by the maelstrom of rushing wind.

“It’s talking!” shouted the restaurant manager, holding the phone to his ear.

“Your secret will be discovered!” shouted the figure. “Prepare it before the ingredients are found, or they will know before the appointed time!”

“What secret?!” shouted one of the officers in the lobby of the police station. Officer Tacara activated the radio in her gauntlet as the others tried to keep all the papers in the room from scattering.

“Looks like a Pyrhian, an air person!” she shouted into her wrist. “It just appeared, no flow-through!”

“You will perform your duty, but you will not apprehend the one you seek! Justice will be done despite this mistake, but the justice will not end the chase!”

“Keep talking,” said Murk, holding the electronic seashell aloft. He ignored the flying papers in his sleeping chambers, knowing that recording the words would be the important thing. Something had happened in the holding cells, and someone would come along to wake him soon. Making sure it didn’t escape was the priority, but any word might be important.

“Your prey was released to be hunted, but another hunter found him before the vines could feast! Who is the hunter’s helper? What does she want? It is too late for those answers to aid you!”

Vox Cul-Dar had seen Pyrhian Air People before, but never one like this. He’d managed to reach the rear entrance of Murk’s facility, and had the one competant guard in the building in a headlock. As what seemed to be a living tornado popped into existence before them, Vox (and the guard, really) forgot their struggle as the ghostly image began shouting more and more words that meant nothing. Vox remembered his place and continued putting the pressure on the guard, releasing just as the guard lost consciousness but before it became fatal.

“Stop shouting, or you’ll blow my cover!” shouted Vox, letting the guard drop to the floor. The Pyrhian’s gaze seemed to focus more clearly on Vox.

“The one you seek is even now close at hand! Only great cunning and great skill will let you find your way!”

Fletch nodded, trusting that the message was a good omen. Whatever this Pyrhian… if it was a Pyrhian… was doing, it didn’t appear to be a threat. She lowered Chernoblast, and contented herself to keep listening.

“Carry your home with you no longer! You will be reunited with glory soon enough! Your prey wears many masks, but a mask does not need to be worn, nor a costume need to be donned, nor a breeze need a rock to sweep!”

Chip watched in smug satisfaction, seeing Zack, Igneous and Hobbar staring at the being in the cell. He looked down the hallway and saw another looking at him, adding its own rush of wind to what the others were experiencing. They didn’t even notice. Chip wondered how many others were conjuring themselves across Helix, and who each message was for.

“You shackle yourself, but your intuition and hope are correct. Void Pilgrim yet flies!”

“That’s what I told ’em!” shouted the ragged fellow in the street. “Void Pilgrim flies, and we’ve got tubes snakin’ their way through town! There’s a shadow-ruler who pulls the strings of Helix with the tools of the ancients!”

“Your path is obscured, but assistance may yet be found for you! Help is available if you seek it! And you…”

Carmen watched the terrifying creature seem to reach forward and grab… something. The image of a face formed in the hands of the specter. Even before the face fully formed, Carmen recognized the out-of-style hat on its head.

“Zack?!”

“What do you want?!” it shouted at Zack.

“To… to get out of here alive! To find Carmen, and to get out! To not be on the run! Put me down!”

The image stared at Zack, who stared back up at it, still finding it hard to breathe.

“You’ve been told when you’ll die, but not how long. Or how long you have to live, but not when you die. You’ll need to make hard choices to survive, but will you have the time for it all?”

The image of Zack dropped to the ground as many watched, and the picture began to spread, briefly filling in a floor and wall made of air and mist before the image suddenly collapsed.

Murk rose out of his tank at the sight of Zack Gamma in his cells.

Vox paused, rethinking what the grisly image meant.

Carmen looked from where the figure had been, to the open window that would let her escape if she wished.

Officer Tacara shut off her radio. The image, naturally, disappeared just after the psi-crimes unit had said they were on their way.

Fletch frowned. She had her reticle compare what was shown of the architecture of the room to known building structures in Helix. The odds of a complete match with such a tiny amount of information (from an interior shot, no less) would ordinarily not be worth considering at all, but the ever-curving nature of helix’s infrastructure might give her just the information she needed.

Zack stood, and backed away from the air-figure, who appeared to be weeping on the floor.

“I’ve never seen a Pyrhian do that before,” he said.

“It’s not common,” said Igneous.

“We should go, Carmen’s not here.” said Zack. “I hope nobody heard that.”

Episode 38: Plan Of Attack

Chip Creep walked out of the shadows of the train tunnel. The guard on duty continued playing some sort of game on his handheld computer, not noticing the hacker’s approach at first. When Chip began an awkward attempt to rise out of the tunnel and onto the platform proper, he almost dropped the phone in surprise but held onto it long enough to put it away and help Chip up.

“Chip? What are you doing?”

“Walking. Thanks. I need to see Murk.”

“Where’s the train? Don’t you usually use a little train? The ‘Creeper Car’ or something?”

“Creep Car. I’m having some train trouble. Listen, I’ve got to talk to Murk, Zack Gamma’s escaped.”

“Escaped? How?”

“Help from the outside. We don’t have long, I really need to speak to Murk about this.”

“Right,” said the guard. He returned to the door and entered a short code on the door’s keypad. The door clicked, and he opened it. He had to quickly sidestep Chip as the hacker tried to move into the door.

“Hey!” said the guard. “You know I’ve gotta clear you first.”

“We don’t have time to wait for that,” said Chip.

A raucous thundering of footsteps came from the other tunnel. The guard stopped and turned to the train tracks, just in time to see a giant Pyrhian rock woman leaping at him, with eyes like brilliant embers. Chip and the guard both screamed as Igneous grabbed the guard and slammed him to the ground. Chip looked away, expecting a sickening sight, but moments later her gravelly voice rumbled to life without the unpleasant noises that he’d anticipated.

“All clear,” she said. Zack entered from Chip’s side of the tunnel, lowering the pistol he’d had trained on Chip during the execution of the plan, the very pistol that he’d stolen from Chip’s apartment. Hobbar entered from Igneous’ side of the tunnel, keeping his sharp eyes on everything surrounding them. Hobbar looked at the guard and breathed a sigh of relief that the guard was breathing, though he doubted the scorch marks on the suit would come out any time soon now that Igneous’ scalding hands had left their mark.

“Nice work, Chip,” said Zack. “He totally bought it and gave Igneous the opening she needed.”

“It wasn’t hard to mess up,” said Chip. “If the plan went wrong, he would’ve let me in and I would’ve been safe from you and I could’ve just told Murk what I know. No matter how this plays out, I’ll help somebody.”

“Right,” said Zack.

“Too bad it’s looking like it’ll be you,” said Chip.

“Thanks,” said Zack.

“Why only one guard?” asked Hobbar. “This is an obvious security problem.”

“I’m the only one in Helix with access to these tunnels,” said Chip. “If an assassin gets in this way, it’s because I helped. And, hey, look how it’s playing out.”

“Your honesty’s refreshing,” said Igneous. “What’ll we be dealing with once we get inside?”

“Murk’s office is near this door. I’ve got no idea what kind of schedule he keeps, but if he’s around there should be guards nearby. I’ve heard he’s no pushover in a fight by himself, though.”

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” said Igneous.

“You said that the holding cells are deeper down,” said Zack. “You sure that they’ll only have light security?”

“No,” said Chip. “I’ve seen them once, and didn’t really want to be there. I felt closed in. Seemed light at the time, only one guard. I’ve got no idea how it’ll look now, though, it’s been a couple years.”

“We’ll have to play that part by ear, then,” said Zack. “Getting Carmen out’s the priority, but it sounds like I’ll have a chance to grab my gear before then, assuming Murk’s still got it in his office. The office is also where we’ll have the best shot at finding the kind of evidence that Murk doesn’t want to be publicized, and that might give us some breathing room if we can get out alive with it. Let’s be quick and quiet about this. No surprises, got it everyone?”

He looked pointedly at Chip.

“Got it,” said Chip.

“Right,” said Hobbar.

“Good,” said Igneous. “The longer we can go without them suspecting anything, the easier this’ll be. Which means there’s probably a dozen or so people just beyond the door. Let’s see how our luck holds out.”

Zack pushed the door open, finishing the job that the guard stopped when Chip tried to slip in. The wood paneling and comfortable lighting beyond revealed a hallway bereft of armed guards.

“So far so good, Igneous,” he said. “Let’s go.”

***

“You’re sure this is where he was last sighted?” asked Vox Cul-Dar.

“The cameras tagged him as an Unknown Figure when he was standing upon the opposite building, looking in the direction of this one,” said Rendelac. “The Phantom Matador was in this location, and observing this building carefully. Barring some editing of the footage.”

Vox nodded. He’d parked his car a short distance from the somber building on Alpha Street, hopefully far enough that he wouldn’t attract attention from either of the large humans who stood on either side of the door. They were trying to look like they were casually loitering, but Vox could tell a guard at a post when he saw one.

“And you did suggest that there was some delay in the file, as if it was being sent elsewhere,” said Vox. “Barring the possibility of code designed to randomly place images of the Phantom Matador in footage, would you say that the time of the delay was more in keeping of observation than editing?”

“Affirmative,” said Rendelac.

“A building with two burly gentlemen who’ve donned clothing on the cheap side of expensive. A building that, if memory serves, is one of the most likely strongholds of Murk.”

“Heed well my words, Vox-Cul Dar,” said Rendelac. “I’ve finished a facial recognition algorithm on those two. They both have criminal records, and one of them does in fact have a known history of dealings with the criminal known as Murk. This building may be more dangerous than we expected when we first decided that it would be worth our time to track the Phantom Matador.”

“You are correct,” said Vox. “Caution is advised. Still, my profession requires bold steps. I do believe that Murk has a few prices on his head, and I’m sure that those in his organization are wanted as well. Just imagine if I could capture the Phantom Matador, while establishing a link between him and Murk’s organization.”

“Heed well my words,” said Rendelac. “Assuming a link there would be speculation. Especially when the Phantom Matador was observing the building rather than entering it.”

“You’re correct, of course,” said Vox. “Regardless, this building is my next stop. Wish me luck, Rendelac. It’s time to find my way inside.”

Episode 33: Backseat Backstabbers

Igneous splashed her way out of the tub of now-warm water. Formerly a pile of ice cubes, the tub hadn’t lasted as long as she would have liked, but it did the job. She still felt hot, but it was bearable.

Zack sat on a back-facing seat of the van. His hat was on the seat next to him, and another human she didn’t recognize sat on the far seat. He was scrawnier that Zack, in a cheap, casual outfit with thin glasses. Hobbar sat in the front of the van, in the driver’s seat. He took his eyes off the road long enough to look in the rear-view mirror to see Igneous rise out of the tub, but quickly turned back to the road.

“Lookin’ good, Igneous,” said Zack. “No one’ll mistake you for a volcano now.”

“It won’t last long,” said Igneous. “We’ll need more ice. The tub’s freeze features aren’t keeping up.”

“Have you thought about something stronger?” asked Zack. “Liquid nitrogen, maybe?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” said the human in the glasses. “Liquid nitrogen’s almost definitely too cold. It might not freeze her solid, but it could make her brittle if it doesn’t kill her outright.”

“I’ve already got some,” said Igneous. “But your friend is right. It’s too early for that. Ice will have to do for now.”

“Igneous, meet Chip Creep. Haven’t figured out his real name yet. He runs the abandoned infrastructure of Helix, sells information to the highest bidder, is probably our best bet for finding Murk, and will probably stab us in the back as soon as we take our eyes off of him. Chip, meet Igneous. She can snap your spine like a twig.”

“Charmed,” said Chip.

“Why do you want to find Murk?” asked Igneous. “Shouldn’t you get out of Helix instead?”

“I don’t want Murk to decide that he needs to come after me even when I’m not in his territory. He’s also got my ID, cash, and striker pistols. Luxuries for someone in my position, but really handy luxuries.”

“Stupid human,” said Igneous. “You don’t need those things. And Murk’s likely to redouble his efforts to track you down instead of being cowed into patiently staying here. You remember what he was like on Ravelar.”

Chip looked pointedly at Zack and Hobbar glanced at the mirror again. Zack looked at the floor.

“Actually, I don’t,” said Zack. “I think that there’s something… off with my memory right now. I can’t… Igneous, I barely remembered that it was you who tipped me off about the price on my head. Murk was convinced that I would know him. I told him he had the wrong guy, but when he tossed me into that fake jungle, something about the smell jogged my memory. I’ve got no idea what’s wrong with my head at the moment.”

“There’s any number of poisons that could cause that effect,” said Igneous. “Is it possible that someone poisoned you?”

“No,” said Zack. “No one’s gotten close enough.”

“No one you saw, at least,” said Igneous.

“Or no one that you remember,” said Chip.

Zack glared at the hacker who raised his hands defensively.

“Hey, if your memory’s screwed up, you should look at all the options.”

Zack started to reply, but a chime came from Chip’s pocket.

“What was that?” asked Zack.

“Probably my phone,” said Chip.

“You brought your phone?” said Zack.

“You didn’t tell me to leave it behind,” said Chip.

“You didn’t search him for a phone?” asked Igneous.

“I was in a rush,” said Zack.

“You let me take my takeout, I didn’t think it was going to be a no-phones kind of trip,” said Chip.

“I was kidnapping you!” said Zack.

“Give me your phone,” said Igneous.

Chip looked at the rock woman, and at the fierce red glow from her eyes and the tips of the crown-like spikes at the top of her head. He sighed, reached into his pocket, and gave her the phone.

“No offense, but I hope I never have to deal with Pyrhians again,” said Chip.

“None taken,” said Igneous. “On average we can kill any human we meet. It’d be unsettling. You don’t have a security code on this?”

“I never expected to need it,” said Chip.

“It’s someone saying that they’ve secured Carmen Shift and taken her to headquarters,” said Igneous. “The racer? Isn’t that kind of kidnapping job a little high-profile for someone in your line of work?”
***
Vox Cul-Dar stepped into his car and indulged himself in slumping back into the seat. Years ago, when he’d still been on his homeworld of Skiwel, he wouldn’t have done anything that demonstrated such a lack of discipline, but the habits of humans could, as he had learned, be contagious.

“I see that you had no luck in tracking down Zack Gamma,” said Rendelac, his glowing eye shifting to look at Vox.

“No,” said Vox. “I’d have him here with me if I did.”

“The police reports indicate that there was quite a lot of violence when you went to check Carmen’s doctor. That was some time ago.”

“Fletch had beaten me there. Zack and Carmen managed to subdue her, if you can believe it. Zack slipped away, though. I’ve been trying to find him ever since. No luck, though. He knows how to stay unseen, I’ll give him that much.”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “You may yet profit from this venture. The recognition software in Helix’s cameras is easy to view for me. I have searched it for people useful to you, and saw a clip of the Phantom Matador. It’s strange, though… the file came to me slower than expected. It’s as if all the security footage in this city is being filtered somewhere. Still, I have a last known location for the Matador if you wish to pursue him.”

“With how things went with Carmen earlier today, I doubt that I’ve still got that job,” said Vox.

“Carmen has not yet filed a request to remove you from her case,” said Rendelac. “She may not have had the time. Still, if you apprehend the Phantom Matador before she does, she would be oglibated to pay the Desperate Measures Agency.”

“And the DMA would be obligated to pay me,” said Vox. “Yes. You are correct. Tell me where this Matador was last seen, Rendelac. I may be able to eke a profit out of this city yet.”