Zack heard a shout and felt his head start to churn. The shout meant something important, but he couldn’t remember what it meant, and whatever it was couldn’t possibly be worse than the way his head felt. He slipped back into unconsciousness for what seemed like no time at all before he felt someone shaking his arms and saying his name.
“Zack? Come on, Zack, talk to me… stay awake, Zack…”
Zack’s eyes snapped open and he saw red hair held in place by a pair of goggles lifted over a human’s eyes that remained unfamiliar until the pain in his skull began to subside.
“Good, good… I was worried for a moment there. Size of the rock that grazed your head, there could’ve been some problems.”
“Rock?” asked Zack. Suddenly the entire scene returned to his mind. “The Matador! The Phantom Matador was here! He picked up some boulders with his mind and tried to kill me!”
“I know,” she said, trying to lift Zack up by the shoulders. “A few people saw the scuffle and called the main desk. Then a custodian came by to clean, saw you, screamed and came down just as I was hearing the rest of the story from the clerk in the lobby. You’re lucky the second rock missed the door and hit the wall outside the room, otherwise there might not’ve been anything left to wake up. Let’s get you to a doctor.”
“The rock didn’t miss, I shot it,” said Zack, slowly standing with Carmen’s help. He patted the floor and found his hat sitting nearby. He recovered it and put it on his head, ignoring Carmen’s look of obvious distaste toward the outdated fashion as he continued. “I shot the rocks with my pistols. Purcellian Strikers. The energy packs a positive magnetic charge, so when both rocks were shot they had enough magnetic propulsion to push each other away. If I hadn’t been able to shoot them, his aim would’ve been spot on and I wouldn’t be stumbling around like an alcoholic at a wine tasting.”
“You’re telling me your aim was good enough to hit two boulders moving fast enough to crush your skull, and you did it fast enough that they banked to the side, makin’ one miss the door entirely and the other just graze your head?”
“Hey, I’ve gotten through worse.”
“Don’t try to pull a fast one on The Fast One herself, Gamma,” she said, walking him toward the door. “I think I know a little about flying rocks. I’m stickin’ with the story that Mr. Matador’s aim isn’t anywhere as hot as he thinks it is.”
“Wait,” said Zack. He stopped walking forward and stared at the door that sat mere inches away.
“We can’t go to a doctor,” he said. “Someone at the DMA’s going to be keeping an eye out at the hospitals just on the off chance that I show up. I mean, I think we have a few doctors and nurses in the city on permanent payroll just to keep an eye out for bounties.”
“You need to see a doctor,” she said. “You might have a concussion. Aren’t there any doctors that you can trust to keep quiet?”
Zack thought for a few moments, a look of confusion briefly flashing across his face. Just as Carmen became concerned that some brain damage might have actually occurred, he shook his head.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “Not in this city. I thought I might, but she’s out of town. Do you know anyone?”
Carmen started shaking her head before smiling excitedly.
“Oh! Actually… yes, yes I do! Zeta!”
“He’s the medic on-hand at the races,” she said. “Always ready to hop on an asteroid and help out just in case someone crashes. Usually an accident on these courses is either no big deal at all, or completely fatal… but for those few accidents where something can actually be done about It, it’s great to have him around. He’ll be in town by now, and he owes me a favor.”
“Can he be trusted?” asked Zack.
“About as well as anyone,” she said. “Plus he’s not exactly up on local gossip. Unless he’s secretly a plant that some criminal overlord put into a sporting event six years ago just in case a racer brings a fugitive there for medical help, we’ve got nothing to worry about.”
Zack’s eyes narrowed and he tilted his hat down. He stared at the floor, pondering.
“Sweet jumpin’ jaspers, you’re actually considering that.”
“Well, it would be an ideal way to catch someone in this kind of situation,” he said. “It wouldn’t take much to set it up, either. Plus, we-”
“Shut up, hide your guns and go,” said Carmen. Without waiting for a response, she opened the door and left. Zack grimaced, holstered his pistols under his coat, and followed.
Vox Cul-Dar sat on the meditation mat in his apartment, letting his mind wander over the facts of the day. The asteroid racing job was a waiting game, one that could be predictably settled the next time the target appeared at a race. Alternatively, the Phantom Matador would leave another note for the Crimson Cruiser, and he could be captured then. The more pressing matter was Zack Gamma, so easily slipping away from right in front of him. On the table before him, a scale model of Rendelac sat, black and oblong with a central green eye rising from its center on a tower. The model of Rendelac stared at Vox, periodically adjusting the focus of its lens.
In the three thousand years since Rendelac began guiding Vox’s home world, the massive computer intelligence had proven itself to be a benevolent leader. The story of Rendelac’s rule was often seen as unsettling for outsiders, especially if told where an image of Rendelac was visible. Vox always found this amusing; while there had been numerous recorded incidents (and a few suspected but non-recorded) incidents of computer uprisings after too much of a civilization became automated, Rendelac appeared different. Perhaps its hands-off approach to rule made the difference, encouraging its subjects to do what they could for themselves. Perhaps its voluntary willingness to remove itself from active control of other machines or bureaucratic processes fostered trust, as Rendelac spoke to millions, and those millions then interpreted and acted on its words.
Some on Vox’s world saw Rendelac as divine, the voice of god made manifest through an oracular triumph of technology. A minority feared the opposite was true and cursed Rendelac’s presence as an abomination from the fetid swamps of the afterlife. Rendelac denied both of these, claiming to merely be what he appeared to be: a simple hyper-intelligent computer the size of a building that had good advice for Vox’s people, who treated said advice as law.
Vox was willing to take Rendelac at its word and, at a young age, joined an order of philosophical and martial teachings that dedicated itself to the computer’s guidance. He spent his formative years perfecting body and mind there, but the siren call of the unknown expanse beyond his world called to him and he eventually bought a one-way ticket to join the rest of the Galactic community. The few possessions he packed included the model of Rendelac. Not a direct link to Rendelac itself, the model was still a functional computer that periodically synchronized with the great mind back home. While it did not always approve of how Vox earned his living, it nevertheless pitched in where it could to help guide the mercenary on a route toward physical health, moderate wealth, and something approaching wisdom.
The model chimed and the eye’s brightness increased as the computer took note of a series of police reports.
“Take note, Cul-Dar, of my words: an incident has been reported that involves your work. The local law agencies were informed of an entity with a description matching that of the Phantom Matador, spotted as he telekinetically lifted a pair of boulders to attack another. This sighting occurred just outside the hotel room rented by Carmen Shift, the Crimson Cruiser.”
Vox opened one of his eyes and met the gaze of the small computer. He had taken it for sentimental reasons, but the years of familiarity and the knowledge that the computer was not truly Rendelac itself had bred a lack of reverence.
“Either the Matador was captured by the police at the time,” said Vox, “or it is already too late. He is slippery and intelligent. In either case, I have no need of involving myself just now.”
Vox closed his eye again and resumed meditating on the events of the day.
“Perhaps you could interview the one who was attacked,” said Rendelac. “Perhaps some insight may be gained, if he could be found. By the time the police arrived, however, the room was vacated. Witnesses report that Carmen Shift had left with an individual wearing a green coat and hat.”
Vox’s eyes opened.
“Green coat and hat? Is that all they said?”
“The hat was said to have an obvious communication device built in, an antenna that would have allowed easy connection to any local networks. The hats were in vogue in the last decade, and continue to have a level of popularity in certain circles.”
A nearby computer screen flickered to life, activated by Rendelac’s connections to the local network. Vox watched as a hat appeared, an unpleasant shade of green and hideously out of style.
“I only know one person with a hat like that,” said Vox. “It seems that Zack Gamma may be interested in taking this case after all.”