The shangmere held the Virellium scythe over her head, and Zack stared at it, trying to determine if there was any way to jump at it as it fell, catching it before it struck him. She looked dangerous, and possibly unhinged, but she didn’t carry herself like a trained fighter. He prepared himself to spring forward, anticipating the scythe’s downward arc.
She held her pose, wringing the scythe in her hands. She stood motionless and Zack started to wonder why he wasn’t already being attacked.
“Why-” he started.
“You hear it too?”
Zack kept his eyes on the scythe.
“It,” she said. “That… creaking. Like pretzels being crushed in a bag.”
Zack tilted his head.
“Are you sure? It’s in the human threshold.”
Zack almost denied it again but it grew louder, a shuddering rumble coming from all sides. The shangmere saw the look on his face.
“There! Now you hear it. What is it?”
“How should I know?” asked Zack. “It’s not my asteroid.”
The reverberations grew louder, and the inside of the cave rattled. The shangmere pulled her scythe closer as she watched the walls nervously. Zack carefully pulled off the blanket and slowly went from lying down to crouching.
With a sudden crunch, a slab of rock shot down from the ceiling of the cave, cutting the chamber into two sections. Zack screamed in surprise, reflexively pulling back from the falling rock moments too late for it to have done any good had there been actual danger.
“No!” came the muffled cry of the shangmere on the other side of the wall. Zack took a deep breath and eventually heard the sound of fists angrily banging against the other side of the rock. Zack smiled. He wasn’t sure how Carmen had known, but she’d come to his rescue just in time.
“It’s no use!” he shouted at the rock wall. “You can’t get to me now!”
The hammering on the other side of the wall subsided. Then, an iridescent blade of energy pierced the rocky wall, poking out from the darkness beyond. Zack jumped back to the wall behind him and watched the scythe’s blade begin to slide down, haltingly progressing through the rock as if being impatiently yanked and pushed by a nervous hand on the other side.
The rumbling returned, and with a sudden crunch the wall behind Zack fell away. Zack looked into the dark tunnel that it revealed. He reached for his packet of supplies and the dented remains of his hat, and ran down the dark corridor. Moments later the rock wall lifted again, hiding his exit from view.
Zack stepped out of the tunnel and found himself staring into the enormity of space, with no force field in place to alter the view. He had known on some level what it would be like to be standing on an asteroid, but somehow he’d never really appreciated how incredible it would look.
“Over here, Zack!”
He snapped out of his reverie and turned to look in the direction of the shout. He skittered across the pocked surface of the rock, and climbed over a short ridge. Dozens of feet away, he saw Carmen standing on a flattened plinth of stone, one foot forward as if she was posed in a perpetual lunge that reminded Zack of surfers or jet boarders. Small boxes of tools or supplies, and what looked like an ice cooler, littered the ground near her feet. She was staring forward and upward, picking which stars to use as her guideposts.
“Carmen!” he shouted, running closer. “Carmen, thanks. That shangmere’s a bounty hunter. I’d guess inexperienced, but definitely dangerous.”
“Shhh,” said Carmen. “Voice down. If my crew opens a channel to tell me something, it’ll be better if you’re quiet. You’ll sound more like I’m talking to someone on another channel.”
“Right,” said Zack, getting closer. “You seem tense.”
“There’s a crazy killer on my ride, and I’m in second place. I don’t know who this rookie is, but she’s going down.”
“Right,” said Zack. “How’d you know I was in trouble?”
“Well, I thought it was kinda weird how you ended communications there. And then no bat guy ran up to me for an autograph. Then I focused on the rock. I could feel where you were, and someone pretty close to you. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I guessed it was bad news. He’s doing something, it’s cutting through my ride one cave at a time. I don’t think I can keep him down there for long. I’m already risking some structural problems with what I’ve done. Plus there’s only so much on-the-fly rebuilding of an asteroid you can do before you get investigated for cheating. When he gets out do you think you can keep ahead of him?”
“It’s a her actually. And… I don’t know. She was fast. Plus she’s got wings.”
“She doesn’t wanna use those up here,” said Carmen. “The atmosphere starts to end a few dozen feet up. Speaking of, do you still have your survival kit?”
“Grabbed it on my way out,” said Zack.
“Good,” said Carmen. “Although she’s pretty dedicated to getting to the surface. It’s almost a shame that you don’t have an excuse to run back into those caves to hide from her.”
“She’s got some kind of tracker, it wouldn’t help.”
“She said that it’d lead to me, that it tracks people who’ve come into contact with Virellium.”
“Oh, sweet, I’ve always wanted to see some of that stuff.”
“You’re in luck, then. She’s got a scythe that looks like it’s made out of it. Or at least some sort of energy enhanced by it, it’d be ridiculously expensive for that blade to be entirely Virellium.”
“Crazy. When’d you get the chance to handle it?”
“That’s just the thing,” said Zack. “I’ve never touched Virellium.”
“Never?” said Carmen.
“Never,” said Zack. He considered saying “Not that I remember”, but decided to stick with his answer. He’d had memory issues lately, he knew it. Virellium was so rare that he could rule out touching it even during memory gaps.
On the other hand, he also knew he’d never done anything to earn the wrath of the Desperate Measures Agency. He never liked it in cases when impossibilities came together, even though it usually meant that he was on the right track. He liked it less now that he was in the middle of it all.
Carmen scowled. She frantically moved her eyes across the sky.
“What’s wrong?” said Zack.
“Don’t you hear that?”
Zack held up his crushed hat. Carmen stared at it for a moment before she nodded to a small toolbox lying near her. He ran to it and opened it, finding two replacement headsets. He quickly put one on and heard the final notes of a mariachi fanfare.
“Someone on our racing team has spotted an intruder on the course, folks!” came an enthusiastic announcer over the sound of a cheering audience. “The Phantom Matador, scourge of the racing federation and ghostly artist of the quick escape has returned! I don’t think you need to run in a qualifying race to crash the scene later in the month, but he must not’ve gotten the race guidelines that we give to all the official racers. Just a reminder, folks, that the racing federation takes all such acts of interference in the races seriously, and… wait, there he is. Look at him go!”
Zack turned to look at Carmen. Rage was covering her face and she was arching further forward, balancing on her feet like an animal ready to pounce.
“Carmen, do you-”
“I’m getting him this time, Zack. Get ready to jump. I’m gonna get you to Mandrake ahead of schedule just to be sure.”