“You’re certain that no one looking like this passed this way?” asked Vox Cul-Dar. “It is vital that I find them.”
The human behind the sandwich cart shook her head as she finished applying the mustard to his order. She started wrapping it into a paper to make it easier to carry without any mess while still making it easy to eat, a custom that Vox found quaint and typical of what few charms humans had. His people would generally prefer to rend a meal to pieces while worrying about the mess later, a custom he had learned was not always appreciated in some parts of civilized space.
“I really wish I could help you,” she said. “It’s been a slow day, though. I think I’d remember seeing them. You don’t get red hair like that every day, and that hat is… well, I think I’d remember. They don’t make antenna hats like that very often these days, do they?”
“No, they don’t,” said Vox, shutting off the holographic image projection. “Thank you for your time.”
“And thank you for the business!” she said. “Enjoy the sandwich.”
He paid a little extra… he felt sorry for anyone who tried to run a business in a place like Helix, and it was always good to foster goodwill in potential contacts in unusual places… and went on his way. Human food was rarely to his liking, but a heavy application of human condiments could make it surprisingly palatable. Perhaps that was why humans used them.
He reactivated his computer’s local network access, a feature he’d turned off to prevent anyone from the DMA from tracking him. While he didn’t think anyone knew that he had a lead on Zack Gamma, you could never be too careful. He was overdue for scrambling his network identification protocols as it was.
He began eating the sandwich as the computer connected, initially telling him that there was a message from Rendelac that he would check later. He entered a quick search scheme, telling the handheld device to seek likely associates of either Zack Gamma or Carmen Shift, entering what he knew about their known affiliations, associations and motivations. The fact that Zack and Carmen knew each other at all was a surprise… which was likely why Zack had chosen not to take the assignment from him when he’d offered it. It paid to keep that kind of association quiet. While he waited for the computer to finish its search scheme, he opened Rendelac’s message.
“I bring a message of guidance,” came Rendelac’s pre-recorded voice. “The child that gave you the tip was lying. I learned this when he attempted to break into your vehicle after you left. Police were contacted, but the child stole the identification node. I have already logged your identification node with them, and they will be on the lookout for any vehicles attempting to use it. More importantly: Zack Gamma and Carmen Shift may not be in the region that he described for you. Travel with wisdom, Vox Cul-Dar.”
Vox glared at his computer and resisted the urge to break something. He took a long, intentional bite of his sandwich, satisfying himself with destroying the food with his teeth. He would save the greater violence for Zack Gamma.
The search scheme concluded, and a list of possibilities appeared on his screen with a series of beeps. The top result was very informative: the asteroid racing coalition rented one of Helix’s medical offices due to the low rates and the fact that Helix was designed with hangars capable of holding regulation-size asteroids due to its construction as a super city that expected interstellar visitors of all sorts. A city like Helix was just out of the way enough that it might offer more secrecy than the other places affiliated with the races in Veskid City. Plus, if Zack needed some sort of medical attention after encountering the Phantom Matador, a regular hospital might be too dangerous.
Vox pulled up a map of the fastest route to the medical office and took a last bite of the sandwich, finishing it. He almost tossed the paper onto the ground in triumph, but recalled Rendelac’s words about the former glory of Helix. He would surely find a receptacle on the way.
Zack winced at the tingling, not-quite-painful sensation of the strange electronic wand that Doctor Zeta was rolling across his scalp where the Phantom Matador’s boulders had grazed him. Zeta had said that the injury wouldn’t be serious if it was treated soon, but the wand was taking a long time. He wanted to discuss the next step of his plan to get away, but was having difficulty thinking of ways to talk about the problem in front of the doctor. As much as Carmen said he was trustable, he didn’t want to take any chances; even an honest, friendly person might accidentally say something that sounded innocent to a friend while unfriendly ears were listening. He also knew that Carmen didn’t care about that kind of risk and had only been quiet so far due to his insistence. She might take any subtle hint as permission to say everything. The doctor, however, might be more informative.
“How long till your next race, doc?”
“Three days,” he said. “The Corona Circuit has concluded and the Corona Cup has been awarded to Carmen after her hard-fought victory, so it’s time for the second circuit of the year to begin. It’s just a preliminary race to ensure that all of the racers qualify. As the victor of the Corona Cup, Carmen already qualifies, so she could sit it out if she chose, or participate as normal with no risk.”
“You couldn’t keep me away, Zeta,” she said. “I’ve already won it.”
“Yes, well… there’s almost never a need for a medic during preliminary races,” said Zeta. “It’s a wide arc through the system that looks exciting on paper, but contains little in the way of hazard or tricky maneuvers. Still, if a rookie suddenly loses atmosphere or if two asteroids collide, I’ll be there to do my job.”
“Will it pass by any of the other planets in the system?”
“Well, some of the other planets will lie within the course’s permitted track on the date and time of the race, yes,” Zeta said. “Most racers would do well to avoid their gravity wells, barring some attempt at a slingshot maneuver. The speed gained from doing that wouldn’t even provide much of a net timing increase after the time lost in deviating enough to reach them.”
Zeta turned off the wand and looked pointedly at Carmen.
“That’s not a challenge, incidentally,” he said. “Everyone knows you could. We don’t need you to give any risky thoughts to the players who aren’t ready for the big leagues yet.”
“News time, Zeta,” she said. “When they race with me, they’re already in the big leagues.”
“All done with your shrink ray, doctor?” asked Zack.
“Stop calling it that,” said Zeta, smirking. “It’s got nothing to do with psychiatry or psychology, and I’m not licensed as a ‘shrink’ as you call it. The beam is intended for neurosurgery and the care of head injuries.”
“So… all done with your shrink ray?”
“Yes, we’re done,” said Zeta. “Take it easy, though. I give it a good two weeks until you’re back up to your usual strength. Invest in a hardhat if you plan on taking any other blows to the head. You might not be so lucky next time.”
“Don’t hit him in the head with any hammers, got it,” said Carmen. “You’re awesome, Zeta. Thanks again.”
“Oh, any time,” he said. “It really wasn’t anything special.”
“Yeah, well, I think it’s time we got going,” said Zack. “We’ve got a bit of a schedule to keep, Carmen.”
A gentle rapping at the door made Zack and Carmen exchange worried glances, but brought a smile to Zeta’s face.
“Wonderful timing,” he said. “I believe that’s my next appointment. Or my first, technically, since you asked for this one to be off the record.. Have a good day, both of you.”
Zeta opened the door of his office and found himself staring down the barrel of an energy rifle.
“Good to meet you, Doctor,” said Fletch, the rapid spinning of the mechanical reticle over her eye covering the room. “Step aside, please, I’ve got an appointment with your patient.”