Carmen and dozens of asteroid racers achieved liftoff, each propelling themselves forward and upward through the archway that signified the starting line. Carmen could feel the atmosphere of the event, a palpable tingling of excitement in the first second of racing that grew from the combined thirst for thrills and need for speed. There was a momentary sense of vertigo that accompanied the rapidly vanishing crowds who fell away from her peripheral vision, but it vanished after she took note of which racers were already drifting behind her. This was going to be a tense race no matter how it played out, but the start remained unsullied.
The weak forcefield grew nearer as she passed between the spires that ran along the runway. Some had audience members or crew members trying to get a better view of the final moments before the asteroids passed into the hard vacuum of space, others were purely decorative. One was the home to a temporary concession stand that sold overpriced drinks, snacks, and souvenirs to anyone desperate enough to spend a huge amount of money on the launch station instead of just waiting a few hours to get a cheaper rate on the surface of Veskid.
As she neared the concession spire, the troubling shape of a humanoid figure stepped over the fence that separated the audience members from the fifty foot drop to the course below. Carmen tried ignoring the figure as she neared it, knowing that she needed to focus on the race instead. Sometimes dedicated fans thought it would be fun to get onto the race track, though usually from a safer location. Sure enough, a warning ping sounded over her headset, alerting her to someone entering the track in her vicinity.
Carmen expected to see an emergency lift slide into place to catch the falling fan, and the lift did, in fact, move to an appropriate position. However, the fan kicked away from the wall and pushed through the air toward the asteroids. Just as Carmen passed the spire and the figure began to move out of her line of sight, Carmen witnessed the unfolding of leathery, bat-like wings.
Moments later, Carmen felt the impact of someone crashing into the side of her ride.
Moments after that, the asteroid passed the forcefield and moved into the empty void of space.
“We seem to have a party crasher on the course, folks!” said Mark Matthews. “A stowaway just boarded Carmen’s asteroid, landing less than a second before the racers passed the forcefield! A shangmere, if I’m not mistaken. An amazing sight to see! Uh, one that we absolutely don’t advocate, of course, due to the dangers it presents to audience members, racing staff, and the racers themselves. Hopefully the stowaway’ll be content to just sit tight.”
Carmen groaned. The last thing she needed was a crazy fan messing up the race.
Carmen’s headset buzzed, with an indication that Zack’s channel was trying to reach her. She rethought her priorities and decided that this call was actually the last thing she needed. She ignored the call for a few moments, but then her headset answered, seemingly on its own.
“Did he just say that there’s a stowaway?”
“Zack?” she said. “Zack, yeah, he… how are you talking to me, I didn’t answer that.”
“An old trick, you can bounce what looks like an emergency signal through channels like these to force an electronic answer as long as there’s no mechanical reason for the device not to answer. This is just a model I know. Look, he said stowaway.”
“Yeah,” said Carmen. “Don’t worry, he’s not talking about you, it’s probably just some fan.”
“I know it’s not me,” said Zack. “I’m not shangmere, I’m human.”
“Look, he’ll probably just scrabble around the rock until he finds me, I’ll promise him an autograph if he just sits still and gets off at the next checkpoint, and I’ll be delayed, like, two seconds getting him off the asteroid. Then it’ll just be you and me again, and I’ll clear things up with security after the fact so that the poor guy doesn’t get thrown in the slammer for the next decade or two. If anything, this’ll help your cover.”
“What makes you think it’s a him?”
“It’s always a him,” said Carmen. “Statistically, the sports fans crazy enough to jump onto the race course during a race are guys, bonus points for the ones who jump onto asteroids moments before leaving atmo.”
“This has happened to you before?”
“Of course it hasn’t happened before! It’s a bat-person flying onto a track with gigantic, multi-ton rocks at high speed and landing successfully. Most crazed fans just run across the track with a flag or something, or try to get to the asteroids before the race starts.”
“I don’t think they like being called bat people,” said Zack. He reached across the ground in his hideaway and picked up one of the bowls of popcorn that he’d made for the trip.
“Fine, right,” said Carmen, sounding more and more annoyed over his headpiece. “Look, I’m gonna try to get this person to be quiet so that it doesn’t use up too much of our air here, but in the meantime we should follow suit and not talk. Got it?”
“Okay,” said Zack. “How about some code words so that I know when the person’s there? Like, say howdy when you see them, and cozy when you’ve gotten them to settle down so that I know that it’s okay.”
“I’d never say that,” says Carmen. “I’ll say… uh… Well, hey there!”
“I can live with that,” said Zack.
“And I’ll say something like just sit tight once I’ve gotten him to agree to sit down.”
Zack nodded to himself.
“Until then, though, let’s keep the signals quiet.”
Zack reached over to pick up the book he’d brought, and saw someone else in the cave. A tall, gangly woman with wide eyes was peering at him from the shadows, smiling a toothy smile.
“Well, hey there!” Zack said.
Surprised and caught reclining, Zack couldn’t react before the shangmere jumped at him. She punched a hand forward, and a staff of wood and metal swung out from it like the arm of a massive clock. It swept away his green hat and the headset beneath it.
“Hey!” shouted Zack.
The shangmere didn’t respond, instead continuing the calculated arc of the staff until she held it over her head. She slammed the staff onto the hat, repeatedly crushing the fedora, the antenna emerging from it, and the headset within it, effectively silencing all communications.
“Right, I’ll say it just like that,” said Carmen, scanning the asteroid around her as best as she could while still keeping her eyes on the race course and the other asteroids. “Like I’m trying to tell you about it without tipping him off. Hyperwave silence now, though, right?”
The empty buzz of a silent channel came through Carmen’s headset.
“Yeah, like… that,” she said. “Must’ve signed off early.”