“It’s a beautiful day for a race, folks,” said Mark Matthews, his voice channeling through every speaker set to cover the race’s progress. “The amazing constellations around Veskid are always a sight to behold when the asteroid racers converge for the Nebula Cup.
Carmen stood on top of her rock, the asteroid known to fact hunters as Kinetic Kuiper. She inhaled and felt the rough edges, jagged corners, and unyielding density of the stone that she’d felt when she first located it. It was the fourth asteroid she’d raced on that she could truly call her own, but it had lasted longer than any of the others. Her petrakinetic connection to it told her more than just the asteroid’s size, shape, and weight, though: she could feel her own weight standing on top of it, and the metal of the platform that it rested upon. She was dimly aware of Zack inside the asteroid, sitting in place and probably listening to Mark’s pre-game spiel She felt the atmosphere pushing down against the asteroid, the easily-forgotten weight of air pushing against it, a weight she would need to maintain.
“Over the next month we’ll be bringing you eleven races related to the Nebula, folks, as these eager competitors square off against each other,” said Mark. “Two regular races every week, with the first of those just two days from now. Those eight races naturally lead up to the championship race on the twenty-ninth, and the traditional Challenge of Atlas, while not weighed against the official score of the race will be happening roughly midway through the series. We couldn’t keep the racers from an Atlas Run if we tried, I think. That’s neither here nor there, though, as we’ve got the first of the races coming up in just moments, the qualifying match that will separate this season’s racers from the hopefuls! Scores of promising petrakinetics from around the Angelor Republic have proven themselves in one way or another, and this is the race that tells us which of them will be in, and which need to head back to their home courses for another season of training!”
Carmen focused on the weight of the atmosphere. She could feel the strange ripples in the air current as the other racers around her did the same. Each had slightly different ways of handling it, ranging from those who could psychically spin the wind to those lucky anaerobic aliens who simply didn’t breathe oxygen. Carmen focused on her own mind, and used her secondary gift to make sure that her atmosphere would stay in place beyond the force field.
Zack huddled in the cave of the asteroid, listening to Matthews over his headset and watching a video screen that cycled between different views of the course, starting line, and the stands of cheering audience members. He noted three locations for audiences, one at the starting and finishing line, one at a small, ring-shaped space station through which the racers would soar, and a final set of stands on a massive asteroid itself, though one with a technological force field keeping its atmosphere in place rather than through any petrakinetic means. Those would be the tickets that sold for the most as the location allowed the spectators to get a taste of what it might actually be like to stand on an asteroid in the races.
“Carmen, what do you think the odds are of the Phantom Matador showing up for this race?”
Carmen winced at the question when it came over her headset. She fumbled with the control at her ear and cleared her throat.
“Why do you ask?”
“Just curious,” said Zack. “I’m keeping my eye on the final set of seats, the bleachers on the asteroid.”
“That’s pretty close to the end of the race,” she said. “If everything goes according to plan, you’ll be off the asteroid before we get there. Aren’t we here to worry about your problems today?”
“Look, I’ve got a hunch but might not be on time to ring the bells. You’ll need to be my eyes.”
“Hugo. Never mind, just… just keep your eyes open. If the Phantom Matador shows up, keep a close eye on his flight path, especially in relation to those bleachers.”
“You think he’s sneaking in with the audience and… keeping the asteroid he’ll ride on there somehow?”
“If I wanted to pull a stunt like that on this particular course, that’s how I’d do it. That doesn’t mean anything, though, since I’m sure the police have also tried-”
“Hate to cut you off, Zack, but we’ve got less than forty-five seconds. Let me focus. Can’t mess up my atmo, you know.”
Zack turned off his headset. After a second, he turned it back on.
“How do you maintain the atmosphere?”
“You’re petrakinetic, that’s not got anything to do with air currents. How-”
“You’re asking me this now?!”
“Sorry, you talked about maintaining atmosphere, and it reminded me of-”
Carmen turned off her headset and inhaled. She didn’t need to be distracted by Zack’s technical questions, or by his talk about the Phantom Matador. Right now, all that mattered was her atmosphere, her rock, and her speed, and for that she needed to keep her attention on what was happening right now.
“There’s the race conductor, folks,” said Mark Matthews, his voice reaching all of the audience members and racers. “He’s approaching the top of the Talonite Trilithon that arcs over the starting line, the same Trilithon seen in the Nebula Circuit’s logo. He’s observing the racers, reaching for his hilt, and drawing the customary Angelor Light Blade. He’s raising it over his head… the racers are all watching for the ceremonial swing that will signal the start… and they’re off!”
Much earlier, on another world…
Sister Barris put down the newspaper at the sequence of raps on the door. She grabbed the Decryption Napkin that she’d hastily written yesterday. Three staccato knocks followed by two longer hollow ones meant that it was safe. She crossed to the door, knocked twice, and heard the first four knocks of a standard Shave And A Haircut sequence. She opened the door an inch and saw Zack Gamma’s hat, sitting on his head.
“Everything’s good?” he asked.
“Did you use the Napkin?”
“All right, let me in.”
Barris opened the door the rest of the way and Zack stepped through. He looked at the table by the door and saw the Neuralization Ray sitting out in the open and, worse, not in Barris’ possession. He closed the door and looked at Barris who held her hands up defensively.
“I don’t want to use that,” said Barris.
“Barris, your track record suggests that you’re more dangerous in a tough spot than I am.”
“Neuralization Rays can cause brain damage.”
“That’s never been proven. How’s everyone’s favorite rich guy?”
“Stressed. He’s in the sitting room.”
Zack crossed the entryway and reached the sitting room. Azar sat in his chair, watching a film on a screen that was generated inside an artistic frame. Azar looked up when Zack entered, and snapped his fingers. The movie paused. Zack flipped his hat off his head, tossed it onto the sofa adjacent to the chair, and took a seat next to it while pointing at the screen.
“Handy feature. How long did it take to program?”
“Not long at all. What did you find out?”
“Good news, bad news,” said Zack. “The good news is that Bristlecorp is no longer holding people on retainer for the case against you, at least no one who wouldn’t be on retainer anyway. There’s no more big legal action being readied, which confirms our suspicion that it’s just saber rattling on their part. Their case was flimsier than a kite made out of paper airplanes.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Azar. “Am I safe, then?”
“That brings me to the bad news. There’s some… talk… in certain circles that began almost immediately after they stopped the legal prep. Someone with lots of money to throw around, or lots of money on the line, is looking to hire the sorts of people who break legs. You get me?”
“I think so,” said Azar. Zack nodded expectantly, waiting for his client to continue, but Azar just stared at the floor, looking worried and weary. After a few tense moments passed, Zack cleared his throat and continued.
“I still don’t like how Bristlecorp set up their legal action. It was sloppy. Rushed. These are people who make Faberges acting like they want to make an omelet.”
“Barris says that they’re acting like a dying animal in its death throes.”
“They are. And that’d make a lot of sense if you were being chased by a wounded orangutan or space tiger that no one had noticed roaming around town before, but major interplanetary corporations can usually keep themselves together a little better than this.”
“Can I trust you?”
“Of course,” said Zack, smiling. “Why couldn’t you?”
“Sister Barris has told me that the people in your line of business aren’t just about protecting people. She’s told me that some of you are hired to track down people like me. Sometimes, the Desperate Measures Agency winds up eliminating targets for the right price. She says she trusts you… but she’s also said some terrible things about the kinds of people who work with you.”
Zack narrowed his eyes and looked out the door into the entry hall. Sister Barris was reading the newspaper at the little table she’d set up for herself, but suddenly looked like she was trying very hard not to listen in. Zack turned back to Azar.
“All the cards on the table,” said Zack. “The Desperate Measures Agency has assassins. It does. I’m not proud of that. Keeps me up at night sometimes. The DMA’s one of the shadiest rackets in the shadiest city of a shady planet. The city’s name used to be Desperation, and renaming itself after the planet hasn’t done much to improve it yet. But I’ve never taken that kind of job from them, and I never will.”
“I’m supposed to trust that?”
“You’re supposed to trust Barris. She’s the cagiest, craftiest, and most aggravatingly thorough lawyer I’ve ever met, and she needed a quick friend in a low place. She and I’ve done a little work together before, even if it was different from this, so she knew a little about me before this all started, but trust me when I tell you that if I hadn’t been trustable then you wouldn’t be talking to me.”
“What if no one is trustworthy?”
“If no one was trustworthy, you wouldn’t have gotten your money in the first place,” said Zack. “If the society had gotten that hopelessly corrupt, you wouldn’t be in so much danger. Now, as to my company… the DMA won’t offer its employees a job to work against you since Barris already hired me, but that won’t stop some of the people there from getting the job elsewhere. Ultimately, the problem’s still the same: any assassin, bounty hunter, or hitman for hire might be approached about this job, and if the DMA’s not offering their employees the bounty then people will start taking a look at the agents who’re protecting people. It’s going to be a little riskier for me to come talk to you directly, at least for a while, so part of what I need to set up is a system for contacting you that won’t be noticed. It might even help if you and I aren’t on the same planet, but I don’t want to rush into that. Rushing leads to mistakes. My guess is that you won’t have to wait long before this starts to blow over, but in either case we can get through this by going slow and steady. Sound good?”
Maul hid behind the dumpster, watching the far end of the alley. He patted down the tufts of fur around his head, worried that they might stick out too far and give away his position, but so far no one had looked between the two buildings or even walked in front of them. He might be in the clear.
He closed his eyes, inhaling and exhaling slowly to calm his nerves. He’d been hiding for three minutes. He’d give it another two.
The brick wall behind him burst apart and a massive, manacled hand shot through the flying bricks and debris. Maul screamed as the bricks and mortar spiraled, moving with a precision and calculated grace, somehow falling around him without immediately crushing him. The hand, bearing the legally mandated gauntlet that was known to thousands of irate fans across a dozen worlds, clamped onto Maul’s shoulder.
Soon, it was silent. The clattering of bricks had stopped, and the only sound was Maul’s panicked breathing as he stared into the stern face that he’d seen so often when he was just a cub. The human… if he was a human… appraised Maul with an appropriately glacial speed before speaking.
“You used to work for Azar.”
The faintest twitch of a finger on the gauntlet and spasms of pain shot through Maul’s shoulder. The news reports hadn’t been exaggerated.
“Yes!” he said. “Yes, he hired me! Me and my friends!”
“I’ve spoken to your friends. Where is Azar now?”
“I don’t know,” wailed Maul. “I don’t know. He left a chip for each of us. There was over a year’s pay on mine with a note saying that he probably wouldn’t be able to rehire us. Said some scary people were looking for him.”
“Good,” said the man. “Your friends said the same thing… either you got your stories straight in advance, or you’re all telling the truth.”
“Just don’t hurt me, okay? I don’t… I don’t know where Azar is, and I don’t want to die.”
“I’m not going to kill you. I just need a little help.”
“Okay. But… look, that job’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Azar’s a good guy. I don’t want to hurt him, okay Iceberg?”
There was a moment of silence before a pained sigh. The man’s gauntlet released Maul’s shoulder, and the lion-like alien dropped to the ground, clutching his upper arm.
“I’m not The Iceberg anymore. It’s just Harold now.”