A private channel snapped to life, originating from Xorn’tal’s leafy, vine-choked asteroid. Vince Flashman opened the channel, scanning the skies over his head even before Mark Matthews finished speaking. The final haunting notes of the mariachi fanfare faded into the background, a theme that had been growing a little longer with each race.
“Sign of: Interloper,” came Xorn’tal’s hollow, translated voice.
“Yeah, but no sight of him on my end,” said Vince. “How about you?”
“Negative. Adversary: elusive.”
A quiet chime heralded the arrival of a third member in the channel, the only other person invited.
“Any sight of him?” asked Carmen.
“No,” said Vince. “As much as it pains me to admit it, I’ve got a good look from behind you two.”
“Vector: rectifying. Solidarity: Commencing.”
“Guys, I don’t want to bail on the plan, I really don’t,” said Carmen. “But I’ve got a lot on my plate this race.”
“Right, the extra passenger.”
“No, the… right, the extra passenger.”
“Just tell him to sit tight, promise an autograph, and let him know what an amazing view he’ll have when you get to the checkpoint.”
“Her, actually,” said Carmen. “And she might have a weapon. I’ve got her in some of the caves in the rock, she went down there for some reason. But now she’s cutting her way out.”
“Danger! Carmen: dock!”
“Yeah, why haven’t you bailed yet?” said Vince.
Carmen looked over her shoulder at Zack, who was watching her curiously. He couldn’t hear the private channel, but he could hear her side of the conversation.
“I’m gonna finish the race, guys,” said Carmen. “If this was happening to a regular racer, they’d issue a flight hazard and make it easier to get rid of the hitchhiker. But I contacted them when we first started, and since I already qualify they won’t disrupt the race for my benefit.”
“Offer: sympathies, sincere,” said Xorn’tal. “Ruling: sensible.”
“Yeah, I agree with leaf boy,” said Vince. “I don’t like it, but I can see their reasoning. And winning a qualifying race… any race, really… isn’t worth putting yourself in danger.”
“Yeah, well, as the person in first place my opinion’s a little different.”
“Count again, Carmen,” said Vince. “You’re in second.”
Carmen looked at the rotating, star-filled sky above and ahead of her. She could just barely make out the rookie in the lead. She smiled at the sight of the new vector being taken.
“Just because you’re about to finish in fourth doesn’t mean I’m not crossing that finish line first,” said Carmen. “It looks like the would-be winner’s not heading to Mandrake. You know, a person could get a decent speed boost if they went that way…”
“Carmen, we said no surprises.”
“YOU said no surprises,” said Carmen. “And how is that a surprise? It offers a speed boost, it’s still in the legal racing territory, and it gives me a chance to get ahead of the wannabe.”
“Carmen. Fear: straight-shots.”
“Hey, I could take her on the straight-shots,” said Carmen. “But I’m far enough behind that I’m going to go for Mandrake.”
“We said we’d stick together, Carmen,” said Vince.
“Hey, that’s your call,” said Carmen. “I’m in the lead. If you think you’re more likely to find the Phantom Matador on your route, go for it.”
The line went uncomfortably silent for a moment.
“Matador: oblique angles. Mandrake: not atypical.”
“Xorn’tal, don’t…” said Vince.
“Vince: shaky flying/afraid? Analysis: chicken.”
“Hey, don’t call Vince chicken,” said Carmen. “If he doesn’t wanna go to Mandrake, that’s fine. He’s never done this course before, the guy deserves to see it how it’s meant to be seen. In fact, why don’t you stick to the main course, too.”
“I don’t need coddling,” said Vince. “I guess you’ll see me at Mandrake.”
“Vince, you don’t-”
“I’d say that I’d see you, but since I’ll be in the lead by then you won’t be in my skyline.”
“Fine!” said Carmen. “You’re on!”
“Maintain: focus,” said Xorn’tal. “Focus: Matador.”
Carmen clenched her teeth.
“Right,” said Carmen. “Focus on the Matador. Vince, you’re on until we get our first true visual on the Matador.”
Carmen leaned to the left, and the asteroid tumbled out of its flight path, heading toward the planet Mandrake. With speeds that had been gradually increasing since the start of the race, what had been a green speck earlier was now recognizable as more than a shiny star.
“Who are you talking to?” said Zack.
“Competitors,” said Carmen. “Trash talk. Don’t worry about it. Oh, but… okay, worry about it. The Phantom Matador’s around, and now there’s going to be at least two people right behind me when you make your jump.”
“My secret jump that no one can see?”
“Right,” said Carmen. “That one. Remember, if anyone asks, you’re a crazy skydiver.”