Episode 2: The Corona Cup

Carmen shouted triumphantly as she expertly whipped her asteroid around the last curve, feeling every pebble on the rock trying to ignore her and listen to the extreme inertia. She willed a burst of speed that she’d been saving since the third lap and rocketed past Vince Flashman, a hotshot rookie who had the right stuff but still hadn’t quite mastered the art of the quick corner.

She punched the air triumphantly in salute to the very distant seating dome, hearing the audience’s response through her earpiece as she hurtled through the ring that designated the final lap. Only Xorn’tal’s asteroid was ahead of hers, and it wouldn’t be for long.

“Carmen Shift, the Crimson Cruiser herself, blasts into second place!” said Mark Mathews, the announcer, his broadcast adding to the din of the audience on her earpiece. “Doesn’t look great for Vince Flashman’s dream of being the first rookie to win the Corona Cup, but he’ll still be making history if he comes in third, or even if he can recover in time to steal second. We don’t get many racers all the way from Earth, but one way or the other he’s definitely made his mark!”

Carmen couldn’t help but grin at that. Flashman looked exhausted when she’d passed him, likely using up most of his thrust at the start of the race with nothing saved for the end. He also spent too much effort on maintaining the atmosphere around his asteroid in her opinion, not letting the gravity of the asteroid help where it could, though that wouldn’t change much until he became more comfortable.

She glanced at Xorn’tal as she passed his asteroid, seeing the strange, vine-like creature shake an angry tendril at her. He’d overexerted himself near the start as well, and a pro like him should really know better. She saluted jovially as her asteroid bobbed its way ahead of his, not letting the gravity wells mingle too much. No need to give him an extra boost.

She passed the halfway gate and knew that the race was hers. So, too, was the Corona, the most prestigious prize for asteroid racers. Her ecstatic smile turned to a puzzled frown as the hazard alarm chimed. The sound of a trumpet playing a dramatic fanfare made her scowl.

“We have an illegal asteroid entering the ring, ladies and gentlemen!” said Matthews, the audience’s cheer doubling. “A now familiar sight, the so-called Phantom Matador has approached the final checkpoint!”

Carmen saw the image of another asteroid at a full stop resting just beyond the final checkpoint gate. At the end of every race in this season’s Corona Circuit, the Phantom Matador had shown up, somehow getting his asteroid past security and onto the race course. He always crossed the finish line first, stealing thunder from the real racers in the last quarter of the last lap, easily outpacing the already exhausted contenders.

“Not this time,” she said.

She saw his asteroid moving as she approached the gate, matching her speed as she passed through it. She drew up next to him and saw the figure, wearing his nearly-all black costume with its red embellishments, naturally including a flowing cape and wide-brimmed hat. He raised his glowing phase sword in salute and surged forward.

They’d promised that this wouldn’t happen. They’d promised increased security, promised that this showboating glory hound wouldn’t be able to sneak something as big as a regulation asteroid onto the race track. She willed her asteroid to pick up speed, rage fueling her concentration.

“Looks like the Crimson Cruiser is taking this security breach personally!” came Mathews’ far-too-chipper voice. “When the Phantom Matador arrived and crossed the finish line at Calen’s Run last month, he stole the thunder from her qualifying match. Could we be looking at payback?”

Carmen wished she’d brought her pistol along, coming just close enough to the intruder’s asteroid at the final curve that she might have been able to land a shot. A weapon could get her a lifetime ban, of course, but it almost seemed worth it. In lieu of any literal weaponry, she willed her asteroid to surge up and over the Matador’s, close enough that her gravity… and her own mind… could shift his rock ever so slightly. She knew that he felt the movement when he looked up. For the first time, she saw genuine concern in his eyes.

“A risky and all-but never seen maneuver on Carmen’s part,” said Matthew. “Mingling gravity wells is always risky, but trying to exert control over his asteroid as well as hers? Absolutely against the rules, of course, but then again the Phantom Matador isn’t a competitor! I think his asteroid technically counts as either an environmental hazard or a rogue rock, depending on how you interpret its method of entering the course, but I think that Carmen doesn’t really care at the moment.”

Carmen launched her ride down, nose diving right in front of the Matador. She saw his instinctive attempt to slow his asteroid and move it in a different direction, and mentally nudged the rock along in the same direction, causing him to overcorrect. She then used what little impact the gravity of his asteroid had on hers in conjunction with her own mind to make it whiplash under, behind and over his asteroid, slower than before, but with him spiraling out and away from the track.

“That should earn her a little street cred with anyone who still thinks that she never played in the Penumbra League,” said Matthew, the broadcast of his voice accompanied by a wildly applauding audience. “I’m a little rusty on my terminology, was that the Yoyo? The Yin-Yang? I get those two mixed up sometimes. Whatever it was, it’s cost her some speed, and Xorn’tal is closing in fast!”

Carmen shouted in frustration. She’d forgotten the other racers for a moment. Narrowing her focus to just the rock beneath her feet and the void in front of her, she accelerated, sensing the vine alien’s ride close behind. He had the velocity to pull up alongside her just as she matched his speed. The two glared at each other as they entered the final stretch.

The two competitors surged forward, each asteroid gaining a few momentary feet on the other as the audience cheered. And then both felt a third asteroid enter their immediate vicinity. Carmen glanced just off the track and saw the Phantom Matador, recovered from spinning off the course, and closing fast. Slower than the other two but moving at an oblique angle that gave him an edge, she knew it would be close.

The audience cheered as both she and the Matador passed through the victory gate, with Xorn’tal only the faintest fraction of a second behind her. She slowed to a steady glide for a standard victory lap, but watched the Phantom Matador zip up and away from the track, saluting her as he rose out of view. Her fists clenched, knowing that the footage of the final moment of the race was even now being poured over to determine if she had crossed the line first, or if the mysterious, cheating ghost had once again beaten the real competitors in the last stretch.

***

At the awards ceremony, she could tell which of the two of them had crossed the finish line first by the way everyone around her pointedly didn’t mention it. She took the gold plated Corona Cup as Xorn’tal and Vince received their own prizes. Vince seemed especially livid, knowing that his meteoric first year had just been ripped away from him.

Returning to her chambers after making sure that her asteroid was properly docked, she paused at the sight of a card and a flower… some kind of local alien weed that resembled a lilac… crudely taped to her door. She removed the card, opened it, and read the message within.

Until our next dance.

-The Phantom Matador

Carmen crumpled the card immediately. The official security clearly wasn’t cutting it. She decided that it was time to take some Desperate Measures.

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