Carmen tossed herself into the chair with a casual finality that had taken her weeks to master when she was just starting out as an asteroid racer. Xorn’tal and Vince Flashman looked up from their talk. The plant creature and human looked worried, but calmed quickly when they saw who it was. At least, Carmen assumed Xorn’tal looked worried given the context, but it was never easy reading the expressions of a creature that emoted with vines, leaves and roots. The three were meeting at a table in the racer’s lounge, but were alone due to how little time there was before the race would begin.
“Carmen,” said Vince. “Sorry. I’m jumpy.”
“Always: jumpy,” said Xorn’tal, speaking through a device that picked up signs from his vines and psychic waves. “Your emotions: fuel and blind.”
“Give the kid a rest,” said Carmen, grabbing a water bottle from a chilled bucket next to the table. “He’s just staying frosty.”
“Thanks,” said Vince.
“Bottle/Vince: both frosty.”
Carmen laughed. Xorn’tal’s voice generator lost a lot in translation, but it gave a more or less direct line to his thoughts without bothering to hide them with grammar.
“Hilarious puns aside, why’d you leave that note for me?” asked Carmen. “I thought that… Well, I thought that the Matador had left another creepy note for me.”
“The Phantom Matador is why we’re meeting, actually,” said Vince. “Tell ‘er what you heard, Xorn’tal.”
“Award: new/honorific. Phantom Matador: media prize. Rationale: sensation. Addition: Phantom Matador inclusion: official statistics.”
Carmen stared at Xorn’tal’s vibrating fronds and worked through the voice generator’s categories.
“Does that mean what I think it means?”
“Probably,” said Vince. “We all know that the racing federation’s been giving that ghost a star’s treatment, and it’s only getting worse. An honorary prize given to the Matador is insulting to the rest of us, and his inclusion in the official statistics, even if it has an explanatory note or gets put in its own category, will hurt everyone’s careers.”
“Especially yours,” said Carmen. “You’re off to a great start.”
Vince hesitated and smiled, waving one hand until settling on how to continue.
“Thank you,” he said. “Means a lot from the Crimson Cruiser. But there’s not a lot of time here.”
“Suggestion: new plan. Vincent’s proposal: dangerous/noble.”
“I’m all for a dangerous plan. What’ve you got in mind?”
“We all won our places in the Nebula Cup,” said Vince. “We’re not at any risk of getting kicked out since we’re the top three in the Corona Cup.”
“Course access: ours. Opportunity: ours. Proposal: temporary alliance.”
“Join forces if he shows up?”
“Effectively,” said Vince. “I don’t know if he’ll bother with a qualifying race. What do you think?”
“How should I know?”
“He’s had the most direct contact with you,” said Vince. “Specifically, races where you’re doing well. And you were asking all of us if he’d tried to contact any of us off of the race courses, so we just wondered…”
“Media: unsure. Tentative/polite speculation requested.”
Carmen drummed her fingers on the table. She twisted the cap off of the water bottle and took a drink.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’ve been trying to keep it quiet. His notes are more than a little forward.”
“More than just taunting you and claiming that he’s really the best, then?”
“Yeah. But he’s trying to be subtle about it, I think.”
“Query: your presence: bait?”
“I don’t know about that,” said Carmen. “But our reason for being here might be bait enough. He’s deluded himself into thinking he’s a real racer. And we’re all on the course today because we’re the real racers. If he wants to prove himself, either for people like us or just for himself, then he might just show up.”
“Is it decided, then?” asked Vince. “If he shows up on the race course, or if we hear them play that fanfare for him, we stop racing to win and we start hunting him down together?”
“I never stop racing to win,” said Carmen.
“Cessation requested: showboating.”
“He’s right,” said Vince. “This isn’t the time. We need to know: are you in? We’ll have to stick together for the race.”
Carmen thought about Zack, still hiding in the cavities of her asteroid. She drummed her fingers on the table again, and also thought about the Phantom Matador dodging her punches in Murk’s stronghold back in Helix.
“I’m in,” said Carmen. “But I’ll also win. You two can just about keep up with me, though, so stick together by not falling too far behind.”
Vince rolled his eyes but smiled.
“Right,” he said. “Shouldn’t be a problem. No surprises on the course, though? We’ve got nothing to prove, so there’s no reason to look for extra trouble.”
Carmen thought about her planned slingshot around Mandrake. Theoretically, those two wouldn’t have a problem with that course, and they might also plan to risk it all for the possibility of a minor speed boost. On the other hand, she didn’t want witnesses when Zack jumped. She tried to present a rakish smile and hoped that it didn’t look fake.
“No surprises,” she said. “Which, naturally, means that I cross the finish line first.”