Tag Archives: writing

Episode 161: Starprey No More

“The Suzerain grants you welcome.”

Zack nodded, trying to avoid the irate looks that Chala was shooting at him. She was translating for the Suzerain during the Sthenite’s closing statements at the conclusion of his trial, but he could tell that Chala had more to say after she was done relaying the official’s words.

“You are free to move between any encampment that recognizes the leadership of the Suzerain, and afforded the protection and hospitality due any of the true people of this world. Welcome, Tzak, Starprey no more.”

The Suzerain finished speaking well before Chala did as she focused on translating, and the crowd of Sthenites reacted to the Suzerain’s statement well before Zack heard it in its entirety, with most hissing, whistling, and chattering excitedly to each other. He took a deep breath as he felt a single threat to his life suddenly nullified. He instantly regretted the inhalation as the moving air in the back of the throat triggered his cough again.

The Suzerain nodded approvingly and turned to leave, as did many of the other Sthenites who had gathered before the stage. Zack watched the majority of the Sthenites depart and quickly jumped to his feet. He didn’t have much time left in the head start that Fletch had granted him, and that was assuming he’d been keeping time correctly and that Fletch would honor her end of the deal.

He walked toward the perimeter of the camp, and moved to its outer wall, nodding to the two massive snakes who began pushing the boulder away from the way out of the camp.

“No! You don’t leave yet, Gamma!”

Zack winced. The boulders weren’t far enough apart yet. He couldn’t dive forward and race into the jungle. He turned around, saw the incoming fist, and nearly avoided Chala’s punch. He fell backward from the impact, tripped over his own shoes, and landed on the ground. Nearby Sthenites who had been chattering excitedly had begun whistling and murmuring nervously at the sight of the two human-Sthenites suddenly engaged in an altercation, and the two by the door paused, wondering if their services were still needed. Zack waved to them to continue as Chala pulled the bow off of her back and aimed it at him.

“How could you, Gamma? What you did there-”

“Look, if you’re worried about me shooting Nectra-”

“No! You didn’t shoot Nectra. I’ve seen that energy burst before.”

“Thought you might’ve,” he said, slowly inching back to his feet and massaging his chin.

“That was the Oborosian Stone!”

“Excuse me?” said Zack.

“The Fact. Don’t tell me you don’t know what it does. This whole thing… this whole set up, you and Nectra were trying to steal it right from under my nose!”

“No!” said Zack. “Look, I’m sorry, but when I figured out what the stone did, I realized-”

“And you thought you could mask it with your guns. The Sthenites might know pistols, but you’d guess they don’t know what yours look like on the different settings.”

“Right,” said Zack. “You’re right about that. But only that. Look, I’m not trying to steal anything. You can have it back, even.”

“I can?”

Chala lowered her bow, but kept rolling her finger around an arrow. Zack watched the weapons carefully.

“Sure!” said Zack. “Look, when I figured out what it did, it was an accident. Tossed me back a few minutes in time, only shifting my position a little. I had… I had literally no idea what was happening until I saw the Sthenites carrying me back to the hut where they were keeping me.”

Chala looked at Zack uncertainly, but still accusingly.

“How did you keep it from the Sthenites? The Phantom Matador had it.”

“I lifted it off him when Nectra and I were moving his body through the jungle. Hid it in my hat, which would be a good hiding place even if it wasn’t teched out. A good smuggler always keeps a false top in those things, at the very least.”

“So you had the Fact… you recognized it while moving the Matador… hid it in your hat where no one thought to look for it… and then figured out it was the Orobosian Stone?”

“Well, I didn’t know it’s name,” said Zack. “I recognized it as a Fact initially and wondered what it was, then I just… look, you hear about time travel in stories all the time, and I was stunned to realize the Fact allowed it, but I couldn’t pass up using it. I wasn’t gonna kill Nectra… and frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t planning on it, the state I’m in. But I sure wasn’t gonna let her kill me either. This was an out.”

“You should have told me, Zack.”

“I couldn’t! You might have thought it was cheating, and you’re a Sthenite.”

“And you don’t think it was cheating?”

“It was guile. I brought the real murderer to justice here, and got the nod of approval from the Suzerain, who just needed an out herself, as you put it. I think the Suzerain, and the weird hallucinated snake-person who talked to me, would both be fine with this.”

Chala shook her head.

“You should’ve told me, Zack. I wasn’t done studying the Orobosian Stone, but I’ve figured out a lot. Plus, a Virellium energy wave is required to kickstart the Fact. If she hadn’t been wielding that scythe of hers when she activated it, I don’t think it would’ve worked for her.”

Zack blinked and rethought the last moments of the trial, considering how high he’d turned the damage on his Purcellian Strikers to help sell the show. He briefly considered Nectra’s last moment being a realization of betrayal and quickly pushed that thought from his mind.

“You’re right,” he said. “I should’ve mentioned something to you. So… fellow Sthenite, will you help me track down Nectra? I left a note for her in my hat, but I don’t know if she’ll find it, and even if she doesn’t a smart assassin like her’ll probably be just outside waiting for us, but no sense making her wait too long.”

“Especially since she’s Starprey.”

“Seriously?”

Zack and Chala stepped into the jungle, and the titanic, cobra-like Sthenites began rolling the boulder back into place.

Episode 62: Triumvirate Trash Talk

A private channel snapped to life, originating from Xorn’tal’s leafy, vine-choked asteroid. Vince Flashman opened the channel, scanning the skies over his head even before Mark Matthews finished speaking. The final haunting notes of the mariachi fanfare faded into the background, a theme that had been growing a little longer with each race.

“Sign of: Interloper,” came Xorn’tal’s hollow, translated voice.

“Yeah, but no sight of him on my end,” said Vince. “How about you?”

“Negative. Adversary: elusive.”

A quiet chime heralded the arrival of a third member in the channel, the only other person invited.

“Any sight of him?” asked Carmen.

“No,” said Vince. “As much as it pains me to admit it, I’ve got a good look from behind you two.”

“Vector: rectifying. Solidarity: Commencing.”

“Guys, I don’t want to bail on the plan, I really don’t,” said Carmen. “But I’ve got a lot on my plate this race.”

“Right, the extra passenger.”

“No, the… right, the extra passenger.”

“Just tell him to sit tight, promise an autograph, and let him know what an amazing view he’ll have when you get to the checkpoint.”

“Her, actually,” said Carmen. “And she might have a weapon. I’ve got her in some of the caves in the rock, she went down there for some reason. But now she’s cutting her way out.”

“Danger! Carmen: dock!”

“Yeah, why haven’t you bailed yet?” said Vince.

Carmen looked over her shoulder at Zack, who was watching her curiously. He couldn’t hear the private channel, but he could hear her side of the conversation.

“I’m gonna finish the race, guys,” said Carmen. “If this was happening to a regular racer, they’d issue a flight hazard and make it easier to get rid of the hitchhiker. But I contacted them when we first started, and since I already qualify they won’t disrupt the race for my benefit.”

“Offer: sympathies, sincere,” said Xorn’tal. “Ruling: sensible.”

“Yeah, I agree with leaf boy,” said Vince. “I don’t like it, but I can see their reasoning. And winning a qualifying race… any race, really… isn’t worth putting yourself in danger.”

“Yeah, well, as the person in first place my opinion’s a little different.”

“Count again, Carmen,” said Vince. “You’re in second.”

Carmen looked at the rotating, star-filled sky above and ahead of her. She could just barely make out the rookie in the lead. She smiled at the sight of the new vector being taken.

“Just because you’re about to finish in fourth doesn’t mean I’m not crossing that finish line first,” said Carmen. “It looks like the would-be winner’s not heading to Mandrake. You know, a person could get a decent speed boost if they went that way…”

“Carmen, we said no surprises.”

“YOU said no surprises,” said Carmen. “And how is that a surprise? It offers a speed boost, it’s still in the legal racing territory, and it gives me a chance to get ahead of the wannabe.”

“Carmen. Fear: straight-shots.”

“Hey, I could take her on the straight-shots,” said Carmen. “But I’m far enough behind that I’m going to go for Mandrake.”

“We said we’d stick together, Carmen,” said Vince.

“Hey, that’s your call,” said Carmen. “I’m in the lead. If you think you’re more likely to find the Phantom Matador on your route, go for it.”

The line went uncomfortably silent for a moment.

“Matador: oblique angles. Mandrake: not atypical.”

“Xorn’tal, don’t…” said Vince.

“Vince: shaky flying/afraid? Analysis: chicken.”

“Hey, don’t call Vince chicken,” said Carmen. “If he doesn’t wanna go to Mandrake, that’s fine. He’s never done this course before, the guy deserves to see it how it’s meant to be seen. In fact, why don’t you stick to the main course, too.”

“I don’t need coddling,” said Vince. “I guess you’ll see me at Mandrake.”

“Vince, you don’t-”

“I’d say that I’d see you, but since I’ll be in the lead by then you won’t be in my skyline.”

“Fine!” said Carmen. “You’re on!”

“Maintain: focus,” said Xorn’tal. “Focus: Matador.”

Carmen clenched her teeth.

“Right,” said Carmen. “Focus on the Matador. Vince, you’re on until we get our first true visual on the Matador.”

Carmen leaned to the left, and the asteroid tumbled out of its flight path, heading toward the planet Mandrake. With speeds that had been gradually increasing since the start of the race, what had been a green speck earlier was now recognizable as more than a shiny star.

“Who are you talking to?” said Zack.

“Competitors,” said Carmen. “Trash talk. Don’t worry about it. Oh, but… okay, worry about it. The Phantom Matador’s around, and now there’s going to be at least two people right behind me when you make your jump.”

“My secret jump that no one can see?”

“Right,” said Carmen. “That one. Remember, if anyone asks, you’re a crazy skydiver.”

Episode 59: Lens Flare

The CryptoBrick was a miracle of technology in the same way that a neanderthal’s cudgel could miraculously shatter a computer that contained advanced security clearance data. The question of needing a fast and reliable method of seeing if certain data could be hazardous to a computer had come up many times, often when the data in question was important enough for it to not matter. The CryptoBrick’s solution was to actually be a computer, a cheap and nearly disposable one designed to receive input in a number of ways but to only present its output through the screen built into one of its rectangular sides. Every model came with advanced cyber security features that allowed its users to clean files or quarantine and delete infected code, but it was understood that anything put onto a CryptoBrick wouldn’t be coming off again. The Astroguard generally only gave a few of them to each ship it sent on a mission, but Captain Andrew Ortega had specifically requested one as part of his equipment after a number of unusual digital crimes, most committed by Doctor Silas Rogers. Given his track record, the Astroguard was willing to grant the request.

“Cowardly but practical,” said Ensign Trell, turning the device over in her hands. “Spying on a problem without giving it a chance to strike back if it detects you may be effective, but it lacks something.”

She set the blocky box onto her workstation and watched its screen light up while its no-frills system booted quickly. Ortega awkwardly looked over her shoulder, not having much room for maneuverability in the closet-sized room marked as the “Technician’s Bay.”

“I wouldn’t say there’s no chance of it striking back,” said Ortega. “It takes a pretty unconventional virus to turn the CryptoBrick against its user, though.”

“How would it do that?”

“The first time I used it, I was trying to track down Doctor Rogers. He’d been using a few different pieces of code to steal some quick cash for another project. I put it in here to examine just how it worked. Apparently, he’d designed the program to detect that it was being installed into a CryptoBrick, and the program activated a secondary function that caused a pattern of bright lights to flash in quick succession on the screen. The effect triggered a pseudo-epileptic hypnotic aftereffect, and I wound up doing Rogers’ dirty work for the next two days.”

Ensign Trell’s eyes lit up and she smiled.

“Impressive. It doesn’t spread the virus, but it does allow some victory to come from containment. The Soul Survivor is a brilliant man.”

Ortega shook his head, but didn’t comment at the use of Doctor Rogers’ chosen title. Instead, he gestured to the screen.

“I think I was able to get everything. We should get started if we’re going to find anything worthwhile.”

“I can have a heuristic scan search for anything that might aid us,” said Trell. “The process would take minutes.”

“Sounds good, but I still think we should check for anything the scan might miss once it’s done. Any detail might be important.”

***

Captain Calen grinned at Pilot William Tan from across the brig’s table.

“Now then, you’ll be telling me everything I want to hear,” said Calen.

“Of course.”

“Don’t think it’ll be that easy for you. I’m sure you’ve had some training for this, but know that it won’t go as easily as you’d expect.”

“I don’t really know much,” said Tan. “I’ll tell you everything I can, and gladly, so-”

“Liar,” said Calen. “You’re a liar. You’re not just a pilot, I can see it in your eyes. There’s something nervous hiding within, and I’ll see the light stolen from them before I’m through.”

“That’s probably just my lenses,” he said. “Cybernetic overlays just over my eyes, said to be made by the Emperor himself. They boost my reaction time and can relay simple information to me. Sometimes I’m reading things they say instead of focusing on whoever I’m talking to.”

“That’s a habit you’ll want to break, and quickly. I hate to say it, Tan, but you represent the forces that took everything from me today, and I’ve been looking for someone to murder because of that. If it weren’t for the fact that Captain Andrew Ortega thinks you might have some infromation, this conversation would have started and ended with me blowing your ship out of the Cypulchral Cloud. Do you understand me?”

“Absolutely,” said Tan. “What do you want to knegh!”

The pilot lurched, clutching his skull. Calen leaned forward, not ready for this turn in the conversation. She’d been looking forward to building up to the point where she could start doing damage, but with Tan looking like he had a migraine she knew she’d have to abandon script.

“Tan?” she said. “Tan! Look me in the eye, cur. Focus!”

William looked up at Captain Calen. The readout on his eyes, previously only displaying general information about his location and Calen, changed. All previous data left his field of vision and new text flowed across it.

CPT. ORTEGA MENTIONED/NEAR/ABSENT. AWAITING SIGNAL.

“What?” asked Tan.

“I said Focus!” said Calen, rising. “Don’t push me, you sorry excuse for a soldier, it won’t take much to rush me along to where I finally get to hear your screams.”

SIGNAL RECEIVED. INITIATING FLARE.

A bright flash of light erupted from William’s eyes, and a series of lightning quick patterns appeared as afterimages in Calen’s eyes. William saw the same, less bright but more accurately focused as his cybernetic lenses shot the image straight onto his retinas.

A moment of silence passed before the two looked at each other, concerned.

“We’ve got to go deeper into the cloud,” said William.

Captain Calen hesitated but nodded.

“You’re right. I’ll probably die in this cursed place, but you’re right. It seems there’s no other option.”

“None,” said William. “The Soul Survivor needs our help.”

Episode 58: Pressure in the Cloud

Pilot William Tan was thrown from the airlock onto the floor of Captain Calen’s ship. A helmet obscured his face, and his hands were fastened behind his back by a set of the Astroguard’s magnetic manacles. Calen lowered her Maelstrom Ray as Captain Ortega stepped in, just behind his prisoner.

“I wouldn’t expect you to treat war criminals so roughly, Ortega.”

“When in Rome,” said Ortega, removing his helmet. “Didn’t want to risk you thinking he was loose. Pushing him down meant he would be clear of any weaponry aimed his way.”

“You’ve a poor opinion of my senses if you think I can’t tell a prisoner from a boarder, Captain, and an even poorer opinion of my aim if you think you could protect him that way. Is our prisoner much use to us, or is he what passes for ballast in this cursed place?”

“He knows how to interpret the information I was able to pull off his computer,” said Ortega, removing a black cube from a compartment near his belt. “An active interpreter is more useful than a quick information grab, especially since the Cypulchral Cloud does things to sensors. He said he wasn’t able to shut his sensors off after The Signal took hold of his ship, so I’m hoping that they were thorough.”

Calen saw the black cube in Ortega’s hand and took a step back, eyeing it warily.

“What possessed you to bring something from that ship back here? I don’t want to risk my scuttler becoming infected with whatever spoils you’ve brought back. More than one tale of salvage ends horribly.”

“This is an Astroguard device, Captain,” said Ortega. “It was made with those kinds of situations in mind. All I need is a monitoring device, and I can use this to examine the data from his computer in isolation from your ship’s systems.”

Calen nodded, still looking over the cube from a distance.

“Permission granted,” she said. “You’ll do this under the supervision of Ensign Trell, though. Not to cast doubts on your techniques, Ortega, but I’ll trust a Morcalan engineer with field experience before I’ll trust the work of a team of technicians working from the safety of their own labs. Trell! Get in here!”

Moments later, the Ensign stepped out of the bridge.

“Trell, the good Captain’s got some information from the Dyson vessel. Help him to get to it so that there’s no chance of the data coming into contact with our systems. We’re playing with fire, today, and I’ll take no chances.”

“Understood, Captain.” Said Trell.

“Meanwhile, I’ve got a prisoner to interrogate,” said Calen. Before Ortega could react, her hand shot down, circled around the pilot’s neck, and slammed him into the wall.

“Wait!” said Ortega.

“No,” said Calen. “I’m sure you think you’ve gotten everything you can out of him, Ortega, and he may even believe he’s told you everything of value, but I insist on wringing our guest dry.”

“Can you at least wait until after Trell and I have more data from his computer?”

“What’s your name, boy?” Calen asked, ignoring Ortega. “I don’t like having strangers on my ship.”

A muffled response came from inside his helmet.

“Why’s he traveling without external speakers?” asked Calen.

“I turned them off during the flight over,” said Ortega. “Didn’t want him interrupting things before you’d had your say.”

“I thought he was being a little too polite for one of Dyson’s mongrels,” said Calen.

“Is that just a basic flight suit?” said Trell, looking at the prisoner’s outfit. “Those things barely have any insulation. Or heating. Captain Ortega, people can die from even brief exposure to space travel if this is all they’re wearing.”

“He’s fine,” said Ortega. “On the way over, my suit measured the temperature and pressure, and at this spot in the cloud it’s actually not bad. A little worse than the top of a standard planet’s highest mountains, maybe. He’s probably cold, but he wasn’t going to die.”

“That’s incredible,” said Trell, reaching over to the prisoner’s helmet and reactivating its external communications. “Pressure like that shouldn’t be possible in a gas cloud this size. Especially this close to the exterior. If only our sensors were working right now, I’m sure the data would be valuable.”

“-old, cold, cold, cold,” said William as the speaker on his helmet crackled to life. “Stop saying I’m fine, I’m cold, I’m cold.”

“We can hear you, Pilot Tan,” said Ortega.

“Good, then you know I need to warm up,” said the prisoner. “I went through blizzard training that was better than this.”

“You’ll warm up soon enough,” said Ortega. He looked up to see Calen nodding in surprised approval.

“What?” he asked.

“There’s a mean streak in you,” said Calen. “You hide it well. That’s a bit reassuring.”

“It can get the job done sometimes,” said Ortega. He walked closer and lowered his voice to a whisper.

“I don’t want you to sacrifice your technique here,” said Ortega. “I really don’t. But there’s something not right about this. Go easy on him during the interrogation.”

“Don’t go soft just when I’m starting to believe there’s hope for you, Ortega.”

“I’m serious,” he said. “There’s something off about him. Too calm. He’s practically a civilian, the way he acts. You might get something useful out of him, but I don’t think he’s worth getting blood on your hands.”

“Typical Astroguard morality,” she said. “You think he’s not dark enough to be worth getting blood on your hands. I may go easy on him for your sake, I may, but know that he’ll have to prove himself. My hands are primed for blood, Captain, and it’s up to him to see if he’s bright enough to be worth staying clean.”

Episode 57: Process of Elimination

Mister Darrus leaned over the railing, watching the asteroids as they grew smaller and began to arc away from his field of vision. The rest of the audience was moving from the seating while excitedly talking about the race, the crazy fan who’d just leaped onto a moving asteroid, and their predictions for which of the newcomers would qualify for the races. Soon, only Mister Darrus continued looking over the railing.

Mister Reese returned from the concession stand and leaned over the railing as well. He handed Darrus the pretzel that he said he’d get, and the two began quietly eating. Midway through his corn dog, Reese sighed.

“The shangmere who jumped onto the race course?”

“Yeah?”

“It was Nectra, wasn’t it.”

“Yeah.”

“Shame about that. I got the fried apricots she likes.”

“Sorry. I looked away for a second.”

“It’s fine.”

“She shouted something about the signal moving really quickly, though. I don’t think she was trying to get away from us.”

“No?”

“No. I think she’s doing her job.”

“Oh, that’s good then.”

“Yeah.”

Reese resumed eating. Darrus continued staring into the void of space.

“There really isn’t anything we can do until that asteroid gets back here at the end of the race, is there?”

“No, no there isn’t.”

Darrus nodded.

“Mind if I have some of those apricot things?”

“Sure. Go for it.”

***

Zack stared into the face of the shangmere. She was standing still, staring at him with her giant eyes and a smile that was designed for ripping soft things apart, things like juicy fruits or human arms. The shadows in the asteroid’s cave and the leering, draculesque smile made it very hard for Zack to not see the resemblance to bats. He swallowed and sorted through all the motions it would take to reach one of the guns in his coat under his blanket.

“Hey to you, too,” she finally said.

“Hiiii,” said Zack, slowly scanning the cave behind her, measuring the distance to the nearest curve leading out to the asteroid’s surface.

“Heeeeey,” she responded. “This is awkward. Um… Right. Hi. So… you’re Zack Gamma?”

Zack inhaled.

“No I’m not.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure,” said Zack.

“I’ve got a tracking device that says otherwise,” said the shangmere, reaching into a pouch that hung from her waist. She removed a small contraption that glowed with a sickly green light.

“Does your device measure… Zackiness?”

She blinked twice, a visually notable display with eyes like hers, and then started laughing. A genuine laugh that unnerved Zack just by being natural.

“That’s funny. It might be better to say that it measures… Gamma waves?”

Zack stared.

“Because you’re Zack Gamma.”

“No I’m not.”

“I’m sorry, but you are,” she said. “There’s only so many people who’ve come into contact with Virellium, and that’s what this measures. It’s a small enough number that once I remove the Pyrhian variances it’s usually easy to track the exact history of every individual who’s touched it.”

“Pyrhian variances?”

“Yeah, they tip the scale sometimes. It’s a different kind of energy, but my detector picks up on it. There may be more to the old stories about Xol than we think, am I right?”

“Ye-es?” said Zack, stretching the word out to a second and even third syllable somehow. He’d successfully moved the hand behind his popcorn bowl beneath the blanket, and was hoping that he could reach the gun while this conversation was still merely awkward.

“Anyway, once I lock out the signals from the Pyrhians I can find all the people who’ve come into contact with Virellium. For just humans, that gives me twelve possible people in range, and eleven of them were known factors. If all the other humans aren’t Zack Gamma… then you are!”

She nodded eagerly. Zack frowned.

“Aren’t you supposed to say that more ominously?”

“What?”

“The thing about me being Zack Gamma, you’re talking like you’re excited, not like you’ve cornered me.”

“I am excited,” she said. “I worked it out. Just one of life’s little brain teasers, and I had fun cracking it. How I feel about it doesn’t change the fact that you’re Zack Gamma.”

“Lady, you’ve got the wrong guy,” he said. “And I’ve never come into contact with Virellium in my life.”

“Oh, but you have,” she said, inching forward. “I can prove it.”

“H…how?”

“With this,” she said, twirling the staff in her hand. “Don’t be scared. Virellium energy sticks around. And if I’ve finally found someone who’s come into contact with it, your energy should be enough to activate this for the first time in ages!”

“This?”

“Stand still!”

Before Zack could reach for the gun, she pushed her staff forward and bopped him on the forehead. Zack’s head was pushed back an inch, leaving him more surprised than wounded.

“Hey!” he said.

“Shh! Watch it.”

She twirled the staff again, and Zack noticed a faint glow that moved along the metalwork. It had appeared to use simple workmanship before, but the designs of metal in the wood seemed to become livelier as they filled with a green glow. The light ran up the length of the staff, seeming to come from the place where Zack had touched it, swiftly moving to the opposite end. Then, at the top of the staff, the light emerged from within it. A pane of green and blue and violet and red shimmering light came out of the side of staff, continuing the workmanship in a single, arcing path. As the light finished, Zack recognized the familiar shape of a scythe’s curved blade, a scythe of Virellium Force Energy, suitable for reaping any harvest.

“Only eleven people to rule out, Zack,” said the bat person, the light of her staff making her already unsettling face more ominous. It cast a horrible shadow on the walls of the cave behind her, making her seem even taller and more spindly than she was. “You’re number twelve. I don’t like saying this, but it’s time for you to die.”

Episode 56: Hyperwave Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What makes you think it’s a him?”

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

“This has happened to you before?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I can live with that,” said Zack.

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

Zack nodded to himself.

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

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

“Well, hey there!” Zack said.

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

“Hey!” shouted Zack.

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

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

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

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

Episode 50: Nectra

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

“Are you almost done?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand that…”

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

“It’s fine.”

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

“It’s really fine.”

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

“Good,” he said. “Now, remember…”

“Say it again.”

“Excuse me?”

“Ask me again.”

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

“Can you truly locate him?”

“Of course I can… with this!”

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

“Marvelous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Message received,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 49: The Poetry Of War

“I’ll blast that ship out of the sky!” shouted Captain Calen. She was raising her fist and shouting at the roof of the bridge, and Ensign Trell was watching eagerly, clearly approving of the sentiment. Captain Andrew Ortega hadn’t been sure just how to reveal the news that the ship issuing the distress signal had been a Dyson Empire vessel, knowing that either of the two Morcalans would see it as a chance for some quick vengeance. This was a situation where the Astroguard’s policies came into direct conflict with the standard practices of the Morcalan military.

“That vessel is in need of assistance, and no longer a threat,” said Ortega.

“We’ll leave it in enough pieces to create a new nebula,” said Calen, ignoring Ortega’s attempted interruption. “This Cypulchral Cloud will be engulfed from within by the remains of this vessel!”

“Unlikely,” said Ortega. “The mass that you’d need for something like that would-”

“I know it’s unlikely!” said Calen. “You’re a fool to take such statements literally. Clearly I’ll need to vaporize a great many vessels to come close to anything on the level of this infernal cloud. What right have you to commit mimesis against the poetry of war!”

“This isn’t war,” said Ortega. “We’re rescuing a ship in distress, and that’s amid our attempt to locate Doctor Silas Rogers.”

“That ship directly assisted in conquering this system!” said Ensign Trell. “Morcala has fallen, and vengeance is ours to take against our enemies!”

“This ship might not have attacked Morcala,” said Ortega. He pointed at the dense, purple mist just outside the bridge’s window. “This cloud attacks any standard ship systems that don’t take precautions. The cloud’s small enough to not lie on any galactic star charts, and the hazard it represents is clearly more well known to Morcalans than others. When the Dyson Dogfighters first swarmed your system, my guess is that this one’s flightpath took it through the cloud. Assuming any warp or hyper engine speed, if it dropped into sub-light speeds at the right time he wouldn’t have had any warning at all.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Trell. “The odds of that happening-”

“Would be more likely when you consider the number of ships that Dyson used,” said Captain Calen, looking out the window. Ensign Trell hesitated at the sight of Calen being suddenly quiet and contemplative, but continued.

“Captain, even if this one ship had no direct involvement, it’s still clearly sided with our enemies. The terms of Morcalan War are clear to anyone. We have a right to destroy this vessel.”

“We have the right, yes,” said Calen. “But not the need. Curse this sentimental attitude of yours, Ortega, and know you’ve earned a mark against you for staying my hand and preventing me from sating my desire for retribution.”

“Captain, we don’t need to stay our hand if we don’t-”

“Ensign, the survivors of that ship may have valuable information for us, and the ship’s computer itself may be of some value. We will retake Morcala, but even now Dyson is putting ever-stronger defenses into place to prevent us from striking against him. We must use… guile.”

Trell narrowed her eyes and turned back to her station.

“Certainly, Captain. Awaiting your orders.”

“I’m glad you see the sense in not destroying the vessel, Captain,” said Ortega.

“Oh, I still fully intend to lay waste to my enemies, Ortega. But the survivors of that ship have earned a stay of their execution through good fortune that they haven’t earned, and may gain a complete reprieve with helpful behavior. Life in a work camp will be too good for Dyson troops. Give Trell the coordinates to the Dyson dogfighter, Captain. I won’t destroy it on sight now.”

Andrew smiled. He’d intentionally returned from a direction that wouldn’t reveal the Dyson vessel’s location just in case the Morcalans wouldn’t listen to reason. Trell had apparently assumed something of the sort, something that might have helped her to realize how hard it would be to enact her desired vengeance without his help.

Captain Calen watched Ortega assist Trell with the coordinates. The Captain of the Astroguard was playing true to his reputation for undeserved charity. He might have been correct in this particular instance, but mercy was never the first option for Morcalan minds. He’d already created some friction where Trell was concerned, unfortunately.

Mercy would win the hour, but she would have to keep an eye on Captain Ortega to ensure that he was dealt with before it could gain a stronger foothold.

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…

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.”