Mandrake was a green, chaotic planet named for its sprawling, reportedly dangerous vegetation. The jungles and regions of poisonous gasses gave the world a green glow that was visible even on Veskid. That same glow was now filling most of the sky over Zack’s head as Carmen steered her asteroid closer and closer. Zack had his eyes on the ground, though, as the shangmere’s energy scythe slowly carved an exit to the surface. Zack opened his coat and withdrew his Purcellian Striker pistols, powering them up to get ready for a fight.
“Can’t you just… take the floor away from her, make her fall back to the center of the asteroid?”
“Wouldn’t really work with the way that I’m trying to keep the gravity working,” said Carmen. “And even if it did, I don’t think the asteroid can crunch much more before falling apart. Plus she’s, like, a bat person, right? Doesn’t she have hook hand thingies that could just hang onto the wall long enough to get out?”
“Shangmere, not bat person,” said Zack. “But… yeah, good point on all counts.”
“What’s that blade made out of, anyway? It’s cutting through the rock faster than… well, about anything I’ve seen used on it.”
“Some sort of energy,” said Zack. “She talked about Virellium. From what I’ve heard, that stuff can cut through stone like a knife through warm milk.”
“Virellium?” said Carmen. “Seriously? How’d she get that much?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s not pure. It’s probably some other energy being shaped by trace Virellium particles. Weird thing is she said she could activate it through bits of Virellium still on me.”
“When did you get your hands on some Virellium?”
“Never happened,” said Zack.
“Sure about that?”
“Even with my memory going like a sieve, I’m pretty sure I’d remember encountering Virellium.
The ground near the protruding blade crunched and dropped before coming to an abrupt stop.
“Ow!” said a muffled voice from beneath the rock. Zack let his pistols drop for a moment as the stone slab began uncomfortably rocking from side to side.
“Not quite up to the standards of most people who kill you, is she?,” said Carmen. Her face twitched and her gaze snapped to the left horizon. “No!”
“What?” asked Zack, turning. Another asteroid was coming into view, rising and taking up a large portion of the sky. Zack could barely make out the image of another human standing on top of it, waving like a tourist on a nearby mountain peak. Carmen tapped her headset.
“Not gonna be that easy, Flashman,” said Carmen.
Zack couldn’t hear Vince’s response, but another rumble from the stone slab refocused his attention on the shangmere. With a rolling toss, the stone pitched to the side and fell into the revealed tunnel. With an acrobatic flip, the shangmere rolled from the tunnel and onto the surface of the asteroid. Zack aimed his guns at her, while she looked up with a mad grin.
“Hi!” she said.
“Stay back,” said Zack. “Look, the Desperate Measures Agency’s bounty isn’t worth it if you’re not alive to spend it.”
“I’m not interested in the b… wow, Mandrake looks amazing!”
The shangmere rose to her full height and stared into the sky, watching the massive green orb overhead. Zack stared at the would-be assassin, marveling at the complete focus. The planet was actually visible in her eyes, their larger surface area making such reflections more discernible than when they happened on humans.
“It… does,” he said. “You’re not interested in the bounty?”
She stopped looking at the planet and snapped her head toward Zack.
“What? Right, no, I’m not. Just you.”
“I don’t recognize you,” said Zack. “Are you not a member of the DMA?”
“Oh, no, no I’m not,” she said. “Sorry, I’m not good at this. I’m Nectra, I should’ve said that sooner.”
“Hold onto your hat!” shouted Carmen, leaning forward. The stones of the asteroid creaked and individual pebbles upon it rattled. After the inertial shaking calmed, she looked over her shoulder at Nectra. “Lady, I’m fine giving you a free ride, but don’t tangle with my friends while you’re on my rock. I’ve got too much on my plate today.”
“Can I have your autograph?” asked Nectra.
“Only if you stop trying to kill Zack.”
Nectra sighed with disappointment and jumped at Zack, spinning her scythe in a wide arc. Zack narrowly fell back, tripping over his own feet to stumble backward. Scowling, he fired both of his pistols. The beams of energy bent through the air, diverting from their path and impacting the blade of the scythe. The staff-like handle in Nectra’s hands glowed brilliantly for a second, crackling at the base and harmlessly discharging. Zack gaped at the sight and Nectra exhaled, relieved.
“I’m so glad that worked! I wasn’t sure it would.”
“What?” asked Zack. “You… didn’t even try to dodge. How… how?”
“I don’t have the reaction time needed to move out of the way from a ray gun before you pull the trigger,” said Nectra. “And after you pull the trigger, the beam moves at light speed, so it’s too late to dodge. Fortunately, your files said that you favor Purcellian Strikers. The magnetic charge it carries is divertable. I repurposed my scythe to act like a lightning rod for that kind of energy, letting it harmlessly discharge. Ooh, your hat!”
“What?” Zack said, just in time for it to register that his hat was gently lifting off of his head. He reached up and held it down.
“I meant it about holding on,” said Carmen. “Mandrake’s gravity is pulling us, and the asteroid’s not strong enough to fight that for long, even with me helping it!”
Zack looked up. The planet was filling the sky. Zack looked back at Nectra as she twirled her scythe, preparing to leap again. He jumped back before that could happen, and propelled himself further than intended, almost crashing into Carmen.
“What’s the escape velocity here?” asked Zack.
“Low enough,” said Carmen.
Nectra ran towards the two, sprinting across the surface of the asteroid at a speed that Zack couldn’t believe. He took a deep breath, crouched, and jumped straight up. The ground fell away from him, dropping away at a dizzying rate. Nectra’s bat-like wings unfolded, and she jumped as well, only to have her ankle grabbed as Carmen, jumping at a more practiced angle, passed just beneath her. Carmen yanked down hard, throwing the shangmere to the ground as she landed.
“Don’t!” said a voice in her headset.
“I know what I’m doing, Vince,” said Carmen. “The stowaway tried to interrupt my friend’s jump.”
“I meant your friend shouldn’t jump now!”
“Why?” asked Carmen, looking up. Her eyes widened.
Zack was rocketing through the air, no longer rising from the asteroid so much as beginning to fall toward the upper atmosphere of Mandrake. From the other horizon, hurtling faster than her own rock, came another asteroid. It was zipping on a near-collision course toward Zack.
He was going to crash onto the asteroid of the Phantom Matador.