Out of Space

A Tale of Sfstory by Dave Menendez

Part 2: Underbeneath

Marjoram knew that the late-night meetings were essential. For budgetary reasons, the Tangerine Research Center could only link to the Interstellar Information Interchange once a day, and for technical reasons that link currently occurred at night. The link didn’t last very long, so if they queried a Sonar Men database, they wouldn’t get an answer for twenty-one hours. That meant their queries had to be well-chosen, and somehow it was decided that this could best be done in rushed meetings taking place moments before the uplink itself.

She didn’t like them, though. In her opinion, the night was for having fun or, failing that, sleeping. Work could wait until the daylight returned.

Not that there was much of a night life on Tangerine for her to miss. The planet was nearly devoid of cool people to party with, and even the research staff had been whittled down to virtually nothing. They got bursts of entertainment media over the link each night, but Marjoram had no interest in becoming a vid-potato.

“Well?” asked Sage, indicating that the meeting should begin.

Marjoram checked her datapad. She knew what it said, but checking showed that she was concerned about accuracy, which the boss respected. “Orliss SoFah’s ID card is co-signed by Interstellar University,” she reported. “We’ll be requesting confirmation tonight, but hardly anyone tries to spoof them these days.” Not since Crunch Rockslab’s little campaign, anyway.

“And the others?”

“We don’t have information on any of Horlun SoFah’s or Ms Rifba’s co-signers, but there’s some overlap with Orliss’s. That may or may not be legitimate.” It was hard to fake a known organization’s digital signature, but it was easy to claim that a random chunk of data was the signature of an obscure one.

“I doubt we’re dealing with identity fraud,” said Oregano. “And if we are, so what? It doesn’t change anything.”

“I was asked to confirm our… guests’ identities,” Marjoram explained patiently. The boss liked patience. Oregano just shrugged, as though it didn’t matter to her.

“We don’t know anything about the Terrans,” Marjoram continued, “although the spaceship they claim to be from might be connected to the recent Zakavian defeat at Arorua. The Empire’s being all secretive about that, so it’s hard to confirm.”

Sage nodded. “That’s fine. Excellent work.” Marjoram flashed a victorious smirk at Oregano, who pretended not to be impressed. “I believe that covers tonight’s uplink. Oregano, what’s the status of our guests?”

“They’re fine,” said the green-haired woman. Like Marjoram, she was puzzled by their orders to treat the prisoners like guests, but neither was about to question the boss. “Hopefully, they’re asleep and not plotting some escape attempt.”

Sage raised an eyebrow. “They have nowhere to escape to. Their ship is unusable for the foreseeable future, and Tangerine is devoid of advanced civilization.”

“That’s true, but Orliss seems like the type who would consider hiking through the jungle a grand adventure, and Ms Rifba really dislikes us. I think we should have locked their door.”

“Perhaps,” said Sage, “but consider—”

An alarm went off on Marjoram’s datapad. Startled, it took her a moment to check what it was, by which time a hint of impatience was showing on Sage’s face. The boss didn’t like being interrupted.

“Someone’s broken into the lab,” Marjoram reported. She called up a video feed and blinked. “It’s the prisoners!”

“Guests,” Sage corrected.

“They’re in the lab with one of our cleaning robots.”

“Is it armed?” They had been forced to repurpose the security robots after budget cutbacks left them unable to afford a janitorial staff. This had turned out well, as the center needed dusting far more often than it needed armed defense.

Marjoram quickly checked the robot’s manifest. “No ammunition.”

Sage nodded and leaned back in her chair. “Oregano, go down and make sure nobody gets hurt.”

All Horlun could see were the three barrels of the cleaning robot’s weapon. They were of an older style, one he wasn’t familiar with, but reminiscent of the projectile weapons popular on Earth and other less-enlightened worlds. No doubt they would fire a high-speed barrage of metallic projectiles which, for all their primitiveness, were nonetheless very effective at killing things. There was considerably more to the cleaning robot than its gun, but Horlun’s attention was understandably focused on the weapon, as it was pointed at his own personal head.

The three barrels started to revolve, their forms blurring until they looked like a single cannon. A quiet, high-pitched whine filled the room. At the back of his mind, Horlun considered leaping under the nearest table, but he knew it would do no good. Even if the robot wasn’t able to shoot him while he was moving, the metal tables would undoubtedly provide little protection. He and the robot faced each other, motionless. Time seemed to stop.


The sudden silence was thunderous. Horlun slowly noticed that neither he nor anyone else had been torn apart by high-powered weaponry. In fact, nothing appeared to have happened.

“Ammunition depleted,” announced the robot, “Engaging close-range combat systems.” As it spoke, another panel opened, this one just below the head. With a startling suddenness, a boxing glove on a spring shot out towards Roy, reaching its maximum extension a few centimeters from his face. He blinked.

“Please step closer,” requested the robot, coolly retracting the spring-loaded glove.

“Forget it!” shot back Roy, “You think I’d just walk into range?”

“You will not be harmed,” assured the robot, smoothly rolling forward.

“I find that hard to believe, seeing as you just tried to kill us all.”

WHAP! The glove connected and Roy went flying, landing a few meters away with his hands over his nose.

“Aaagh! You call that ‘no harm’?”

The robot ignored him, turning its glowing red eye towards Anme, who happened to be standing nearby. She quickly stepped to the side. The whole robot started turning to face her and she ran to keep out of its presumed angle of attack.

Horlun watched in dismay. This was a disaster. Their snooping had been discovered and they were under attack by the Sonar Men’s security forces. Well, one security unit. And not a particularly threatening one at that. But in principle it was a disaster, and once their hosts found out what had happened, he had no doubt that—

“Get down!” shouted Anme.

Without thinking, Horlun dropped to a crouch. He heard the robot’s glove pass overhead from behind, then begin to retract. He decided that getting under a table might not be so bad an idea, after all.

“Now she starts shouting warnings,” grumbled Roy from behind the hand gripping his nose. Horlun offered his handkerchief, which was accepted gratefully. Getting blood out of the white cloth would be a pain, but it didn’t matter much since they were all about to die anyway.

Orliss and Anme had ducked under the other operating tables, leaving only Jen still facing their mechanical adversary. She appeared to be taunting it.

“Don’t wanna come over here? ’Fraid I’ll dodge and you’ll end up smashing the lab equipment? Coward! Come get some!”

“Why is she taunting a robot?” asked Roy quietly. “It doesn’t sound intelligent enough to get angry.”

“Weren’t you accusing it of lying a few minutes ago?” asked Horlun.

Roy grumbled something unpleasant-sounding in English.

“I have a plan,” said Orliss quietly from underneath his table. “While Jen keeps that monstrosity distracted, we’ll sneak up from behind and disable it.”

It was plans like that which made Horlun wonder what, exactly, his cousin’s college education was teaching him, but before he could comment something exploded in the robot’s general direction.

“Problem solved,” said Jen in the quiet that followed.

Horlun and Roy cautiously got out from under the table and stood. There was an irregular, smoking hole where the panel concealing the robot’s boxing glove had been. Jen was casually standing on the other side of the room. She gave Horlun a thumbs-up.

“What happened?” he asked.

Roy didn’t bother waiting for her answer. “Where did you get a gun?”

Jen just smiled. “What gun?” She held up her hands to demonstrate that she was not, in fact, holding a weapon.

“I suppose the robot just exploded on its own, then?”

Jen made a face, and slapped the side of her left boot. “It’s a pain to get to and it can’t hold anything large, but people never think to check that holster.”

“Concealed weapons aren’t really part of the heroic style,” said Orliss, brushing himself off.

“Neither is breaking and entering.”

“That depends on whether these Sonar Men are villains or not.” He looked at the motionless form of the security robot. Smoke was still wafting from its central panel. “You don’t see a lot of innocent bystanders with deadly robotic security janitors.”

“Speaking of which,” said Anme, heading towards the door, “maybe we should get out of here before any more show up.” She tapped the door control and, once again, nothing happened. “That’s just great. We’re trapped.”

“Maybe I can bypass it again,” said Jen, walking up.

Anme nodded and was about to lean back on the locked door when it suddenly opened, revealing another black security robot.

“Target acquired.”

“Huh?” said Anme right before a blast from the robot sent her flying across the room. Jen quickly hit the door control, blocking the next shot from the deadly janitor.

“We need to get out of here,” Jen told them, reaching the obvious conclusion. The door started to open, and she swiftly hit the door close button. “They’ll figure out a way around this soon.”

“Just smash the controls,” Orliss told her.

“That won’t stop the door from working.”

“We’ll have to take the other way out,” said Roy, running to join Horlun by Anme’s fallen form.

“Suicide?” asked Orliss. “Things aren’t that bad.”

Anme was lying on her side, some faint wisps of smoke coming from a black patch on the back of her jacket. Otherwise, she looked uninjured. Aside from the unconsciousness, that is. Apparently, the security staff on the Anonymous weren’t kidding around when they told her it would block blaster fire.

“I meant the other exit,” said Roy irritably.

“Oh, right. The portal into the black, unknown depths of the mountain.”


The door opened and the robot managed to get off another shot before Jen could shut it again. Fortunately, no one was in the way this time.

“Well,” said Orliss, walking over to the other door while Roy and Horlun lifted Anme, “let’s get going.”

Horlun resolved not to think about what might have been. Sure, he might have spent the evening asleep in a comfortable bed instead of carrying his unconscious girlfriend through the unlit chambers of the research center’s basement, but dwelling on it would only distract him from his immediate needs, such as avoiding obstacles in the dark.

“Ow!” said Roy, who then chose to curse the darkness rather than light a single candle. (He probably would have chosen differently if he had been carrying any candles, but that was another might-have-been that Horlun was choosing not to consider.)

“Are you all right?” asked Jen. She was behind them a bit, having stayed to make sure the security forces didn’t immediately follow them out of the lab.

“Stubbed my toe,” Roy explained. “I’m fine.”

“You sure it isn’t broken or anything?”

“No, I’m okay.”

“’Cause we wouldn’t want you walking around on a broken toe.”

“I’m fine,” Roy insisted. “I just wish it wasn’t so dark.”

The other exit from the lab had lead onto a catwalk over a deep pit. A window from the lab had provided some light, but by the time they got to the other side of the bay, all the light helped them see was the window itself. Past the bay was another storage area, which meant more chances of walking into something but fewer chances of falling to their deaths. A pretty good trade, in Horlun’s opinion.

“You know,” Orliss said from the front of their group. “There’s a light on my wrist-chronometer.”

“Great,” said Roy. “I was wondering what time it is.”

In the dark, Horlun could just make out his cousin raising his wrist near his face and activating the light. Its feeble blue glow was just enough to illuminate Orliss’s face, leaving the rest of him largely invisible.

“Hmm,” he said, “all I can see is the chronometer.”

“Try pointing it away from you,” Horlun suggested.

The student hero did so. It wasn’t much of an improvement.

“Marjoram, I’ve reached the lab.”

“Right. I can see you on the monitor.”

“Then you also know that our guests aren’t here anymore.”

“They fled into the deep storage areas while you were still on your way down. We don’t have video coverage, but Sage and I think they’re still in there.”

“Why don’t we have video?”

“The lights are out. You’ll need to go in after them, but watch out for crates and stuff. You could smash up your shins real bad.”

“And how am I supposed to see anything in the dark?”

“You didn’t bring your night-vision equipment?”


“A flashlight?”

“Not really. Couldn’t you just turn on the lights from your end?”

“But then they’d know we’re looking for them.”

“They may have guessed that by now, what with the robot attacks and all.”

“Oo, good point. I’ll ask the boss.”

“Okay,” said Orliss, “I think we’re going to have to accept that we’re lost.”

“If by ‘accept’ you mean ‘admit’, we’re way ahead of you,” replied Roy.

“Why don’t we stop for a moment?” suggested Horlun. “I think Anme’s starting to come around, and it’s not like we’re in a big hurry.”

“Not that I object to resting,” said Roy, “but I was under the impression we were in considerable danger, what with the robot attacks and all.”

“Hopefully, they’re just as confounded by the darkness as we are,” said Orliss.

“I’ll keep watch,” offered Jen, “…in the sense that I’ll listen for anyone approaching.”

Horlun waited for Roy to ask what would happen if the people approaching were being very quiet, but apparently the Terran had met his sarcastic commentary quota for the time being. He turned his attention to Anme, who was groaning quietly. He wished he could see her, but Orliss had switched off his light to preserve the batteries.

“How do you feel?” he asked her.

Anme groaned. “Are we dead?” she asked groggily, a reasonable if inaccurate conclusion to draw when waking up in a dark cavern after being shot.

“Not presently,” replied Orliss. To demonstrate his vitality, he pointed his watch’s weak beam of light at his face. Unfortunately, he had forgotten to consider that people who think they might be dead are not generally comforted by the sudden appearance of a friend’s floating, disembodied face.

Once they got Anme to stop screaming and calm down somewhat, Horlun briefly summarized their situation. “We crossed a narrow bridge over a chasm and walked aimlessly through this dark basement for a while. Then you woke up.”

Anme considered that. “Sounds boring,” she said, “but still preferable to getting shot by a heavily-armed automatic vacuum cleaner.” She rose to a sitting position. Horlun could just barely see her rubbing her forehead in the dim light from Orliss’s watch. “So what’s our next move?”

“Escape,” said Orliss confidently. They waited a few minutes to see if he was going to elaborate.

“Okay,” said Roy. “I like this plan so far.”

“Yeah,” agreed Jen. “Especially the escaping part.”

With the requisite snarky asides out of the way, Horlun took it on himself to ask whether his cousin could perhaps clarify the details of his plan.

“Um…,” said Orliss. It didn’t exactly fill them with confidence.

“I thought we were going to steal a ship,” said Roy. “Since the Finstar is, well, not in working order.”

“I don’t like leaving the ship behind,” said Orliss. “It’s borrowed and we’ve already gotten it damaged. Anme’s father won’t be too happy if she goes back and tells him we left it with the Sonar Men.”

Anme shook her head. “I wouldn’t worry too much about what my father thinks.”

“Perhaps, but it saddens me to contribute to the estrangement of my friends from their parents. We heroes have a responsibility to save people, not just from physical danger, but from emotional troubles as well.”

“Look,” said Horlun, “that’s a very honorable sentiment, but the fact is the ship was damaged through no fault of our own.” He turned to face Anme, for all the good it did in the dark. “I’m sure your father would rather see you get home alive than get killed trying to rescue his ship from the Sonar Men, right?”

“I don’t know,” said Anme. “He paid a lot for that ship.”

“Perhaps we should focus more on the immediate difficulties,” suggested Jen. “For one thing, it’s too dark for us to just wander around and hope we chance across a stairway leading up.”

With the kind of ironic timing normally reserved only for television and, to a lesser extent, the rhythmic shadow puppetry of Foobarh’s southern continent, the lights in the room switched on immediately after Jen finished talking. Startled, the five of them sat blinking for a few moments while their eyes adjusted.

“Hey,” said Roy, who had recovered first, “there’s a staircase leading to the upper levels over there.” He pointed towards a set of double doors which were clearly marked access to the upper levels.

“What unbelievable luck!” exclaimed Orliss. “It’s as though the gods had grown weary of us just wandering around endlessly, or something.”

Gods or not, the five of them wasted no time rushing towards the staircase and hurling themselves up the first few flights. Then it began to sink in just how far they still had to go, and they started to pace themselves. They had descended quite a distance in their quest to find out what exactly went on in the research center, and now they would have to travel all that distance again, only tired and against the flow of gravity. Horlun began calculating how long it would be before someone expressed a preference for taking an elevator.



“Our guests have left the deep storage area. They’re in staircase 5 about three levels above you and climbing.”

“Okay. How do I get there from here?”

“I’m not sure where you are. Could you describe your location?”

“It’s a big room sparsely filled with crates.”

“Ah. Okay… that’s not going to be enough.”

“Look, why not use our advanced technology to trace my signal and use our floor plans to figure out the quickest path?”

“That’s a great idea! And if we had that sort of accurate 3D model of the center, I’d get right on it. But we only have some schematics, so maybe you could describe how you got to where you are now and I’ll figure out where that is.”


“All in all,” commented Roy, “I think I would have preferred taking the elevator.”

Rats, thought Horlun. His guess had been off by a flight and a half.

“At least it’s a spiral staircase,” said Jen. “No annoying one-eighties every few meters. Much easier to get a steady rhythm.” Much harder to judge flights, of course, but Horlun kept that complaint to himself.

“You think we’ll come across a door anytime soon?” asked Anme nervously.

“There has to be one eventually,” said Roy. “You don’t dig a big hole in a mountain and build a staircase inside if there’s no place for it to go.”

“Well, duh. It’s just that the stairwell is really tall, and I don’t feel like climbing to the very top if I can avoid it.”

Roy gestured to the empty space in the center of the stairwell. “If we get to the top and nothing’s there, I can recommend an easy way down.” Apparently, the Sonar Men considered themselves above such petty things as safety railing. There were no guard rails or bannisters on the inside curve of the stairs. They simply stopped, leaving a circular shaft in the center of the stairwell which served as a freight elevator, judging by the four grooved columns spaced evenly around its circumference. Sharp edges have a strange attractive force, especially when beyond them is a long vertical drop, and to avoid this the five of them kept as far to the right as they could be without scraping their shoulders on the wall.

“You can go first,” said Anme, glancing at the pit. “I’ll follow you.”

As it happened, they encountered doors leading out of the staircase before they reached the top. Unfortunately, they were locked. More ominously, while Horlun was considering the depressing possibility that all the exits were locked save the one where they entered, the freight elevator’s counterweight slowly passed them on its way down.

“Wait,” said Jen. “The elevator car was at the bottom?”

Roy cleared his throat. “I don’t like to say ‘I told you so’—”

“Liar,” interruped Anme.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You’re lying. No creature in this universe dislikes being able to say ‘I told you so.’ ”

“Under these circumstances, me being right also means pursuit is behind us and gaining. I’d rather be wrong than dead.”

“You see, that’s what’s wrong with your philosophy. You’re willing to compromise your principles just for the sake of staying alive. How can you compete with people who are willing to die for their beliefs?”

“I’m not aware that my principles are at stake here, and in any case, an organization whose members prefer death to being incorrect had better have a good recruitment policy if it hopes to remain active in the long run.”

“There you go again, with your ‘organizations’ and ‘policies’…”

Horlun tuned them out and slowed down a bit to be nearer to Jen. She, at least, could hold a conversation without it becoming a grudge match.

“It’s funny,” she commented. “They keep getting into these arguments, but they always end up next to each other. It’s almost like they enjoy it.”

“Yeah.” Time for an abrupt topic shift. The only thing more boring than listening to two people having a pointless argument was discussing those two people and their arguments with someone else. “How long do you think we have before our pursuit catches up?”

“I don’t really know. Judging by the counterweight, this thing was built for lifting power, not speed, but it’s still moving faster than we are.” She opened her jacket slightly, revealing the gun in her shoulder holster. “I’d be more comfortable if I had my handgun with the blinking lights, but this was enough for the security bots. We won’t go down without a fight, brief though it may be.” She glanced again at the center of the shaft. The elevator cables were just visible, silently sliding through lubricated grooves in the support columns. As she had said, they didn’t seem to be moving very fast. “Actually, I’m surprised they’re using cables. I’m pretty sure the Sonar Men have anti-gravity technologies.”

Horlun shrugged. “I’m sure cable-and-pulley systems are less expensive, even for the Sonar Men.” The two walked in silence for a few moments, each trying not to listen to Anme and Roy, whose argument had somehow evolved into a debate over the relative merits of subtitling and dubbing foreign-language films. The problem with trying to hold a conversation with Jen was that the only real connection between them was Orliss, and they couldn’t really talk about him while he was only a few meters ahead of them. At least, Horlun didn’t feel comfortable doing so. He loved his cousin, but he was also aware of his… short attention span in certain areas. He and Anme were both worried that Jen was setting herself up for a disappointment.

“I found an exit!” called Orliss from the front of their group. It was the message they had been waiting for. It was good news at last. It was about bloody time; Horlun’s feet felt like they might fall off at any moment. Would it have killed Anme to wait until he retrieved a better pair of shoes from the ship before she got them involved in her hiking-intensive quest for truth?

Despite the aches in their insoles, the five sped up a bit and left the stairwell in high spirits. They found themselves in a large chamber. At the far end was a large set of double doors marked exit. Nearby was another set, presumably leading deeper into the mountain. Between them, dividing the chamber in two, was a chasm spanned by a single, narrow bridge.

Roy observed the room with a sour expression. “If we run into a balrog, I’m going to be very upset.”

“Attention,” came a familiar-sounding synthesized voice. “For your safety and convenience, we request that you surrender immediately.”

Before Horlun could finish spinning around to face the inevitable robot guard, Jen had already drawn her weapon and fired off two shots. Both struck the janitor’s armor and bounced off harmlessly.

“Discontinue your attacks,” ordered the robot. “They will prove ineffective.”

“Crap!” exclaimed Jen. “Our weapons are useless against them!”

“What about that last one?” Horlun asked, eyeing the black-armored figure warily.

“When it opened its panel to strike, I fired into the hole.”

“What now, then?”

“Follow me,” said Orliss. Figuring that his cousin’s plan couldn’t be worse than doing nothing, Horlun did so. The five of them slowly moved in an arc, keeping a constant distance between themselves and the robot, which rotated on its treads to keep itself facing them.

“This is pointless,” observed their foe. Horlun found himself agreeing, but tried to give Orliss the benefit of the doubt.

Once they had moved so that the robot was between them and the stairs, Orliss motioned them to a halt. The nature of his plan was becoming clearer to Horlun, and he wasn’t liking the implications.

“Go!” shouted Orliss. He and Jen were off like a shot, running directly towards their metal opponent. Roy, Anme, and Horlun followed a split-second later, reasoning that they might as well die together. (At least, that was Horlun’s reasoning.) The robot didn’t have time to react before they reached it, but Horlun imagined it was doing the robot security unit equivalent of blinking in surprise.

Somehow they all hit at the same time, which was enough to start the machine sliding backwards on its treads. For such a large piece of equipment, it was surprisingly light. Wouldn’t it get better traction if it was heavier? wondered Horlun. But he was not about to argue with a poor design choice that worked in their favor.

Almost before he knew it, they reached the edge of the stairs and the robot briefly found itself flying. Then it crashed into the stairs on the other side of the gap and started rolling downwards. The five of them stood watching with silly grins on their faces. There was a part of the sentient mind that deeply enjoyed pushing expensive machinery off of high ledges.

“All right,” said Anme. “That was pretty cool.”

Some distance below them, the crashing abruptly came to a halt, and a voice rose in its place: “Emergency staircase contingency plan successful.”

Without any need for coordination, the five travellers took off towards the narrow bridge and the exit. Behind them, the sounds of the robot slowly ascending rose from the stairwell, along with another, non-synthetic voice.

“…the hell?”

“Miss Oregano…,” said Orliss, who slowed down and started to turn back to the stairs. Jen grabbed his arm and yanked him along.

“There’s no time for that,” she barked. “Do you want to get out of here or not?”

“But… no, I guess escape is the better option.”

They kept running, fear temporarily overriding the more sensible parts of their brains, which would have pointed out that they had already spent a considerable chunk of the evening running or walking from one disaster to the next. Each time, fatigue returned sooner—Orliss wasn’t having any trouble, but Horlun lacked his cousin’s heroic physique, which he had obtained through a heroic exercise regimen.

At least this room was lit. Tonight had provided years worth of running in the dark from unseen, unconfirmed, possibly-nonexistent pursuit. It was classic nightmare material: the endless chase, the fearsome-but-unspecified consequences of capture, the growing exhaustion threatening to nullify his efforts. Horlun considered that. Maybe all this was a nightmare. Maybe he was still on the ship, unconscious. Perhaps the Sonar Men had never captured them, and they were free, alone, lost in space, and slowly running out of oxygen while his brain manufactured a jumbled mishmash of anxieties and fear for his entertainment.

It sounded less appealing the more he thought about it.

“Almost there,” said Orliss. The narrow bridge beckoned them, holding forth the promise of escape and a chance to sit down for a bit.

Sure, thought Horlun, but once we get there, we’ll have to escape from something else.

As it happened, he was wrong. A blaster shot struck the top of the bridge’s arc just as Roy was about to step on it. Since firing on the ground right where someone is about to walk is pretty much a universal signal to stop, the five of them stumbled to a halt, achingly close to the bridge and its uncertain promise of freedom.

“Stop!” shouted Oregano redundantly.

Jen had already drawn her weapon and aimed, but Orliss had a hand in front of her weapon before she could fire. “I’ll handle this,” he told her.

Jen didn’t seem too pleased by this, but she didn’t comment. Not verbally, anyway.

The cavern was large, and it took a few seconds for the green-haired employee of the Sonar Men to reach them. “Okay,” she said. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“Escaping,” said Anme. “You’ll forgive us if we don’t feel like participating in your twisted tinkering with the fabric of life itself.”

“Nicely put,” said Orliss.

“Thank you.”

Oregano looked at them blankly. “One moment,” she said, holding up a finger. After a quick whispered consultation with her communicator, she looked up and tried to smile reassuringly. “Okay, I’ll level with you. Marjoram and I aren’t entirely sure why you’re here, but we don’t think you’re in any danger. Aside from that brought on by your escape attempts, that is.”

“I find your assurances less than convincing,” said Anme.

“Yeah, there’s a shock.” She turned to Orliss, apparently in the hopes of reaching a less suspicious audience. “Why don’t we all sit down and catch our breath, and then head back towards your quarters. There’s still a few hours before morning, and then we can have a late breakfast or an early lunch or something.”

“A brunch, perhaps,” suggested Orliss.

“That would be great.” She faced Jen. “How about you give me your weapon first. We don’t want any accidents.”

Jen nodded, and held out her emergency backup gun. Oregano took it and briefly nodded, acknowledging how they were all working together peacefully and without sudden violence such as Jen’s other hand striking Oregano’s head from the side at high speed.

The khaki-clad guard very briefly found herself airborne, but didn’t look to be sufficiently conscious to enjoy it. Jen quickly scooped up her gun, grabbed Orliss, and took off for the exit.

“Let’s go!” she added, when the others were slow to catch on.

They made it across the bridge without incident, and soon they reached the exit, whereupon a new obstacle presented itself: the doors.

“Was it really necessary to be so abrupt?” asked Orliss as he squared his shoulders in preparation for a frontal assault on the closed portal. “She could be dead now.”

Jen shook her head. “At worst it’s a concussion. She’s fine.”

“Hey!” came an outraged shout from beyond the bridge.


Orliss nodded and launched himself at the double doors. They were more than twice his height, and looked pretty sturdy. It wasn’t clear what, exactly, Orliss thought was going to happen when he hit them.

They never found out; the doors slid open with amazing speed just moments before Orliss passed through the doorway and out of the research center entirely.

“Get back here!” shouted Oregano from the top of the narrow bridge. She was holding the side of her head in one hand, and a pistol in the other.

This time, Orliss wasn’t able to stop Jen before she fired a few shots at their pursuer, but she had no more luck against this foe than she had against the robot; Oregano threw herself backwards, where the curve of the bridge protected her from Jen’s fire.

And speaking of the robot, Horlun could just make out a dark shape emerging from the stairwell in the distance. He pointed this out to the others, and the four of them wasted no time joining Orliss on the other side of the doorway.

The night sky was dark and overcast, the low-hanging clouds and humidity making it seem like they were still indoors. The nearby river helped dispel that illusion, but beyond it was another wall of rock.

“Hurry,” called Orliss, “I found a boat.” Two, in fact. He was standing on the end of a small pier on the edge of the river. The whole area had the look of a loading dock, although Horlun wasn’t sure how much river traffic a secret, mostly-abandoned research facility could expect.

They piled into a boat, except for Jen who fiddled with the controls on the other one for a moment before joining them. Orliss quickly intuited the controls of the craft, and in no time at all they were flying down the river, Jen trading fire with Oregano, who had emerged just a little to late to stop them.

Horlun watched the concrete dock slowly shrink with distance and looked for the rest of the center, but it didn’t seem to be in evidence. We must have gone through the mountain and come out the other side, he thought. He took off his shoes and was about to remove his socks and dip his feet in the river when he remembered all the nasty things which live in jungle waters. They were probably moving too fast for any local predators, but why take the chance?

They rounded a bend in the river, and the canyon walls soon hid the center completely. They were alone and free, with only the roar of the engine echoing off the stone walls for company. For a while they sat and rested, except for Orliss, who was still piloting the boat. At length, Roy spoke up.

“Isn’t this taking us further from the ships?”

“In the short term,” said Orliss. “Once we regroup, we can make a new attempt to break back into the center and steal a spaceship. This way, they won’t know where we’ll be coming from, either.”

“Actually, they will,” said Roy. “Unless we climb out of the canyon or something.”

Orliss considered that. The walls of the canyon were tall and steep and promised much pain to those who dared climb them. He shrugged. “The canyon won’t last forever. Once we’re on level ground, we can circle back and strike from a different direction.”

“Goody. Nothing follows up a night of running around through basements better than a day of hiking through alien jungles.”

“We’ll need to take some time to rest,” said Orliss. “But then we’ll be ready to brave the elements and the unknown terrors of the wilderness. It’ll be a grand adventure.”

To the east, the mountains were sinking to reveal the sun. Oregano had seen the dawn on Tangerine before, but that had been the result of getting up early, not staying up late. Certainly not after piloting a boat all night in search of escaped guests.

It was the worst sort of luck that this had happened when it did. The darkness meant she had to scan the banks carefully once she left the constriction of the canyon, forcing her to either move slowly and let them get further ahead, or try to catch up and risk passing them. It really was a two-person job, but Thyme and Rosemary were away from the center, Lord Rentacar and Sage were too important to come along, and Marjoram certainly thought she was too important.

“Besides,” Marjoram had said, “you let them get away, you go get them back.” It had a certain grade-school logic to it, but it wasn’t the sort of decision-making that lead to the most effective solutions. Now, any failure would be Oregano’s alone. This was worrisome: Marjoram liked to flaunt her authority, but ultimately Sage was calling the shots. (And everything Sage did was done with the approval of Lord Rentacar, if the organization charts were to be believed.)

A splash on the riverbank distracted her and she almost didn’t see the markings on the bank. A boat had pulled up and been dragged out of the water. She turned around and pulled up to examine the tracks. They were old. Several days at a minimum.

“Needlewarp.” A false trail, and her quarry had gotten further ahead while she examined it. Frustrated, she brought the engines back on-line.

At least, that was what she was expecting to happen. What actually happened was more like nothing.

As is traditional among people faced with unexpected mechanical failure, she tried it a few more times, in case it hadn’t realized she was serious. Still, nothing happened. Her engines had failed. In the middle of the jungle, hours away from the research center, after a night without any sleep, and increasingly far from her targets.

This wasn’t going to stop her. It would only slow her down.

Will our heroes get where they’re going before Oregano catches up?

Where are they going?

Shouldn’t they be trying to steal a ship and get off the planet?

Or have they been seduced by Tangerine’s tropical charm?

SFSTORY. For great justice.