Carmen Shift smiled and lowered the goggles to cover her eyes, tinging the launch-line hangar with a red hue. The blue of the force field in front of her mixed with the goggles to cause the void of space to be bathed in a familiar purple glow. She caught the glances of the competitors as they looked in her direction, rookies watching her with a mixture of awe and concern and older competitors nodding curtly and with a knowing smile as each started weighing the impact of the known competitors in the race.
The crowds in the stands were already gathering to watch in numbers even though it was just a qualifying race. Carmen knew that there were only so many so soon due to the media fiasco surrounding the Phantom Matador, but she was pushing that out of her mind. She always ran the qualifying races even when she didn’t need to, and she wasn’t going to change that now. The rookies around her were walking around their rocks, checking them visually before the robotic scanners would begin their pre-race scan for engines or other illegal boosters that might increase an asteroid’s speed or maneuverability. Carmen could feel her asteroid and knew that it was good to go, and that her passenger was secured.
Her passenger huddled in a hollow located inside the asteroid. Zack Gamma held a tablet monitor in his hands, one keyed to show him all the relevant details from the race course’s cameras. Carmen had assured him that she’d be able to sustain an environment for both of them, and she was right that the interior of the asteroid, while cramped and uncomfortable, would be decent enough with a few blankets or pillows to soften the rocky interior.
Zack hadn’t expected much more than to be huddled against an uncomfortable rock, and hadn’t even thought to consider a blanket, and as such found himself more comfortable than he’d imagined. He tried to avoid thinking about the word ‘cozy’ as he repositioned one of the pillows at his back and shifted the blanket over him. He’d almost protested against them, but Carmen had said that it would get a lot colder once they were in space since the heat of the environment would be dependent upon how agitated she could make the molecules of the environment, and she’d be putting most of her energy into generating speed. Zack had built himself up to expect a tough ride anyway, though, and accepted the blankets without issue. He watched the scanner robot roll up to the front of Carmen’s asteroid through the forward camera and touched his green hat. The antenna poking out of the top of the fedora pinged and a private communication channel hailed Carmen.
Carmen heard the buzz in her headphones. She rolled her eyes, knowing it was Zack. If it had been on the racing announcement channel it would have played automatically, and her crew had just enough of a routine that she knew they wouldn’t be contacting her right now since running up to her asteroid was still an option. She opened the channel.
“Are you-” started Zack.
“The scanner won’t care bout you,” said Carmen. “It’ll assume you’re a member of my crew, and bringing along extra weight will hurt me during the race more than it’ll help.”
Zack watched the ominous, circular eye of the scanner robot activate, switching from orange to red. Theoretically the robot had to look so menacing to do its job, otherwise he couldn’t see the point of designing it that way. He didn’t want to think about what kind of energy it would use the scans.
“Sorry,” he said. “I just don’t want to get caught by the DMA now that we’re in the home stretch. So to speak. We know they’re watching you now, and Fletch has gotten too close too many times.”
“Relax, G-man,” she said, waving to the scanner as its red light shifted to an unnecessarily tense violet. “Unless you picked today to develop some latent psychic mojo, the scanner’s not gonna care about you.”
“Detectives and investigators are five times as likely to develop Spenser’s Disease,” said Zack. “The extra activity in that part of the brain makes it easier to develop. That’d make it notice me.”
“They’re also five times as likely to look up statistics about diseases that no one gets. Look, Gamma, I get it, one wrong move and you’re toast. But you’re past the point of this where you’ve gotta make moves! Just coast on through to the end.”
“Easy for you to say.”
The robot’s mechanical eye powered down, and the horrible glow left the filaments from its circular structure. It turned and rolled on to the next asteroid.
“It should be easier for you,” she said. “Look, it’s moved on. You’ve officially gone from toast to coast. Now, no more shop talk unless you’re gonna help psyche me up to crush these poseurs.”
“Do you really need to crush anyone? You’ve already qualified for the race, and beating the other racers won’t keep them from qualifying.”
“It’ll keep them from winning today.”
“Is winning really much of an issue? You’re taking a detour to drop me off on Mandrake and pretending it’s gonna give you a speed boost in some sort of tricky maneuver.”
“Gamma, let me explain something. We’re gonna take off in less than half an hour. I’m gonna travel a tenth of an Ausome out of my way to lob you onto the planet Mandrake. I’m actually gonna get that speed boost I mentioned. And then, when these other so-called racers think that they’ve got a clear shot at the gold because I’ve taken a crazy chance on a longshot maneuver, I’m gonna crash the party and crush their standings. I’m gonna win, even after doing this favor for you.”
“Not to weigh down your boundless optimism, but I don’t see how you’ll be able to win if you take me to the surface of Mandrake.”
There was a pause in the transmission. Zack could almost hear an infuriating smile on the other side of the signal.
“Zack, you’ve not checked the red blanket yet, have you?”
Zack looked to the three or four unused blankets.
“Not yet,” he said. “It’s still pretty warm in here with just one.”
“You’re gonna want to take a look in there.”
Zack leaned over and grabbed the red blanket. He felt something inside, and unwrapped a small packet of emergency travel items. In particular, a robotic parachute with preprogrammable descent options, a tin of rations, and (most ominously) a single-use CLI-model Reentry Antiburn Shield.
“You’re… you’re just going to expect me to jump out of this asteroid once we hit its atmosphere, aren’t you?”
“Not even slowing down,” she said. “Dude, it’s win-win. You get a more convincing getaway, and I get a legit speed boost from whiplashing around Mandrake. I’ve even programmed your parachute with the perfect landing spot. You wanted to get off-world, and the Crimson Cruiser has delivered.”
Zack stared at the items, speechless. A dozen ways that the plan could go wrong went through his mind… but they were all mechanical longshots. Assuming the gear was reliable, and there was no reason to think it wasn’t, the plan was actually perfect. The Desperate Measures Agency wouldn’t be expecting it unless they had eyes right on Mandrake, and no one would tie Carmen’s reckless behavior to anything other than her just being herself.
“Carmen, I do believe you’ve actually come up with something sneaky,” he said. “I think my paranoia’s starting to rub off on you.”
“Don’t remind me,” she said. “Now, quiet down. I’m still getting into the zone.”
Igneous downed the Cryomar Solution, and felt the freezing cold liquid begin to course through her. It wasn’t quite drinking liquid nitrogen, but it was getting close to it. The stone woman couldn’t help but look like a pile of glowing coals as more and more cracks appeared on her rocky hide, letting the red glow of her internal heat out for the world to see. She knew that she had to stave off her metamorphosis as long as she could if the rumors about Xol were true. The Pyrhians only spoke in whispers of it, largely because there was a lack of hard data about what had been happening after metamorphoses for the last few months. Where before the final transition was a celebrated change, now it was feared.
The rest of the public had started to notice the rising fear in the Pyrhians, but didn’t quite understand just what they were seeing. The Pyrhians had always been a bit of a mystery, sometimes even to themselves. They were a powerful people, often setting themselves apart as superior to other races, but this change in demeanor had suggested an unexpected social shift was on the way. It took a particularly cagey outside observer to truly understand the subtleties of the mysteries at work.
Igneous looked across the bar, one of Veskid City’s seedier establishments that would still tolerate known problems like her. Apart from a bucket of ice for both feet and two for her hands on the table, they no longer offered anything that would actually help her to stay cool, and even the ice was losing its effect. A woman in a blue and black cysuit entered, and the cybernetic reticle covering her eye zipped around the room until it locked on her. Fletch had arrived.
Two or three figures in the corners of the room slunk deeper into the shadows at the sight of Fletch, likely people with bounties on their heads who knew who Fletch was and were worried that she’d come for them. A part of Igneous envied Fletch’s notoriety… she’d been in the DMA for just as long, after all… but also appreciated just how much her anonymity helped.
The bounty hunter walked over to Igneous’ table and sat down. In the days since the incident at Murk’s stronghold in Helix, Igneous had dreaded this meeting. She’d been ready to fight Fletch then and there after her laughable combat with Murk, something to give Zack a little more wiggle room. Fletch hadn’t expected a fight, though. After all, they had reasons to work together.
“Is it ready?” asked Fletch. Igneous nodded.
“The tracker’s in place,” said Igneous. “Carmen’s plan to extract Zack from this planet is clever, if a bit straightforward. Only someone in her position, and someone with her level of talent, could be expected to pull it off. When Zack jumps, the tracker will take you right to him. You’ll be the only DMA Agent on the planet with him, as opposed to one of dozens in Helix.”
“Good,” said Fletch. “I have no doubt that I could have captured Zack then and there, but Gamma has proven… tricky. Fortune favors him. Multiple bounty hunters working against each other would give him the chance to escape from me.”
“Go easy on him,” said Igneous. “He’s a good man, and doesn’t deserve this bounty.”
“No one in the DMA is truly good,” said Fletch. “Investigating with our agency was his way of clearing his mind from something, I’m sure. Most in his line of work die alone, and he’ll be no exception.”
“Don’t expect him to die on you so easily,” said Igneous. “I never would have betrayed him if I thought it was a certainty that you’d win. Speaking of which… my payment?”
“The Teles?” said Fletch. “If the tracker works, you’ll get it. You aren’t expecting it to burn up on reentry when Zack leaps from the asteroid to the surface of Mandrake, are you?”
Igneous gripped the surface of the table, but caught herself before she damaged it. She glared at Fletch.
“The Reentry Shield that Carmen picked is a one-use item, but it’s good. None of his equipment will be damaged. Still, it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty that the tracker will remain free of interference.”
“Let’s hope for your sake that it works as advertised,” said Fletch. “You’re getting pretty hot. Your options for cooling down will be slimming. Staying warm longer is risky, but your hide might protect you long enough to cool down. But cooling down too much will make you more brittle, removing the protection. It’ll be tricky to balance something like that, and Teles is one of the only things that can cool you down without causing you structural issues. If anything goes wrong with my tracker, you won’t get your hands on the Teles. And good luck trying to find any more. The market for selling it’s become more risky than normal lately for some reason.”
“Yes,” said Igneous. “I’d noticed. A large number of bounties have been collected on dealers in Veskid City. Picked up quite efficiently and systematically.”
“Pity about that,” said Fletch. “Fortunately, it seems like the underworld has noticed that Teles is the connecting trend, so fewer and fewer are risking selling it. Looks like I’m your only option.”
“How convenient,” said Igneous.