Carmen heard the gentle chime that announced someone at the door of her suite and tossed the remote onto the bed. She touched the security panel by the side of the door and watched as its full-body screen activated, showing the view on the other side. She smiled and opened the door to see a haggard looking Zack Gamma.
“Mornin’,” he said. “Took a while on that door.”
“Zack! Get in here. You know, I kinda hoped that I’d see you today.”
“You did?” he said. He stepped into the sitting area of the suite, glanced at the media screen and saw the captioned text for a muted news program talking about the continuing efforts against the Dyson Armada several sectors away. Greedy despots who built up some power had a habit of beginning wars to try to build up more, and seeing news reports like that all brought on feelings of déjà vu.
“I did, yes,” she said, closing the door. “I’ve got a problem that might just be up your alley.”
“What a coincidence. I’ve got a problem that might just be up yours.”
He grinned and nodded at the news report.
“Not a standard show for you, if memory serves. I thought you got your news from the text feeds and saved the big screen for fiction.”
“Well, I make sure to catch the occasional news clip,” she said. “But you’re right. I’m keeping an eye on the news to see if my problem pops up. And every time it makes the news, I think it gets worse. See, there’s this guy who’s-”
“I need your help sneaking off the planet without going through any major ports that might catch my ID.”
Carmen stared, her eyes growing wide.
“Sorry to interrupt,” said Zack, “but my time’s running shorter than a midget sprinting down an escalator. I think it’s best to get all the cards on the table.”
“You want me to smuggle you across interplanetary borders?”
“Carmen, if I could think of any other way to do it, I would.”
“You see me for the first time in three years and you ask me to sneak you off the planet?”
“Believe me, I don’t want to involve you in this any more than I have to,” he said. “But it’s not exactly common knowledge that we know each other, so of all the friends that might help me out in a pinch you’re the one who’s least likely to get in hot water, and you actually happen to be in town instead of on the road so the timing works out.”
“No, it’s fine, man,” she said. “I’m just surprised is all. Wild ride. I mean, illegal, sure, but nothing I couldn’t swing, long as I’ve got time to coordinate it with the races. This’d be in exchange for your regular fee, though, right?”
“Yeah, for my problem,” she said. She nodded at the television. “Another five minutes and the news would probably do a better job of explaining it than I could. See, there’s this guy… he’s crashing the races. He’s riding an asteroid onto the courses at the end of the races, especially the long ones where the racers would be exhausted by the last lap. He barrels in, either alongside or just ahead of the racer in first place, who usually happens to be me, and then he crosses the finish line first.”
“Flashy,” he said. “A colleague mentioned some of this to me last night, it’s honestly what made me realize that you were in the area. I doubt it’ll mess up your official stats, though.”
“It could!” she said. “In fact, in the last race for the Corona Cup, our gravity wells interfered, so technically it’s already influenced a game. And flashy doesn’t even begin to cover it. He’s got a mask and cape, all in black with red trim. He’s got this weird sword thing, too. To make matters worse, the media’s all over it. The racing league says that they’re doing everything they can to keep him off the courses, but I know they don’t mean it. They’ve even given him a name: The Phantom Matador! And they’ve made this weird trumpet fanfare that plays when he shows up. They’re not hindering this guy, they’re rolling out the red carpet for him!”
“I see,” said Zack. “That’s a little disturbing. Have they gotten law enforcement to look into it, maybe shore up their own security a bit?”
“They say they have,” said Carmen. “And technically it’s true. But law enforcement isn’t really equipped to chase asteroid riders so close to spectators, their vehicles lack the combination of speed and maneuverability required. Once the asteroid gets off the course they could catch up to it easily, but the rocks normally vanish as soon as they leave the circuit. The one time they found it, the so-called Matador wasn’t with it.”
“Just like the phantom they say he is,” he said. “Sounds like they might as well not even have the police then.”
“The only reason the police are there is so that they can dramatically say that he’s not yet been captured,” she said, glaring at the screen, though it was only showing an advertisement for a new model of home care robot. “I mean, this was supposed to be my year. I was going to be the rising star of the league this time around, and then this guy shows up. The spotlight’s not on me, it’s on the Matador! I’m going to start losing sponsors. And if I win at the end of the season, I don’t want the record books to put an asterisk by my name due to… I don’t know, suspected collaboration, or speed boosts I might get from his gravity well or something. I might be getting the trophies, but that’s not enough, man. I want the glory, too. And the Phantom Matador’s swiping it from under my nose!”
She lightly punched a wall, causing the monitor to rattle. Zack stepped back.
“So you want me to… figure out who he is?” he asked.
“Either that, or stop him from getting onto my race courses. Or anywhere near me, for that matter.”
“Sounds like a run of the mill glory hound with telekinetic powers,” he said. “I’m kind of surprised that he’s not already been found. A person like that wants attention, so the odds of their telekinetic ability being a complete secret would be slim… Unless that’s not what he wants.”
Zack thought about the situation. A few other details came to mind as well, details that mixed oddly with Carmen’s story. She had the news on, which was unusual, and from what he remembered of her she wasn’t one to watch things with the sound off. She had a tendency to rush into things, but he’d noticed a delay between when he’d heard her reach the door and when she opened it, as if she’d taken the extra time to check to see who was on the other side. She wasn’t normally that cautious.
“Carmen, have you had any other contact with this Phantom Matador?”
Her eyes narrowed.
“Now that you mention it, yeah. He’s been figuring out where I’ve been staying during the races, and leaving weird notes and flowers and things. It’s… honestly kinda creepy. I’ve not exactly talked about it to the other racers, but as far as I can tell he’s not given anything to anyone else.”
“This is sounding more and more like something that you should contact the police about,” said Zack. “That’s crossing the line from being a harmless crazy person that gives the sport a publicity boost to criminal.”
“No way,” she said. “Trust me, this guy wants media attention. If word gets out that he’s got some kinda star-crossed stalker crush, that’s an even bigger media story. Worse, anything I win gets him a mention. I’m not having any of that. No police. That’s why you’re here.”
“Right,” he said. “Ignoring my whole need to get offworld, at least.”
“Yeah, ignoring that. Makes sense that you’d pick up the case, though, if you’re on a rush to get somewhere else.”
“Oh, I didn’t take the case,” he said. “I just heard about it. I’m trying to keep my hands clean of it so that no one’ll even think that I’m coming to you for help.”
“You didn’t? Weird. Explains why you were early, then.”
“Early for what?”
“I’d set up an appointment for right about now when I called the DMA,” she said. “You were a few minutes early. I just assumed-”
There was a swift rapping on the door, the kind of rapping that someone with strong, fast hands might make. Zack’s face turned white.
“That’s probably them,” said Carmen.