Zack felt thrilled. He wasn’t sure how much of his leap from Carmen’s asteroid was caused by the gravity of the planet overhead, how much was caused by Carmen pulling away, how much was caused by the robotic parachute he was wearing, or how much was due to his own two legs, but the fact remained that he was experiencing a successful jump straight into the air. Achieving escape velocity, seemingly under his own power in spite of what he knew about the situation, was nearly remarkable enough to make him forget the near-death situation he’d been in moments earlier. He hadn’t been expecting the sudden deployment of the breathing apparatus, and the sudden cold as he transitioned from the thin atmosphere of Carmen’s asteroid to the thinner atmosphere of the far, far reaches of the uppermost levels of Mandrake’s atmosphere.
His parachute was perplexed. The programmed trip had been from a moving asteroid to the surface of a planet, and by the time it had activated the collision with the incoming asteroid was effectively inevitable. It was still an interesting job, one that it was happy to do of course, but it certainly wasn’t expected when it activated moments after Zack’s jump. Based on the way its wearer was responding, its wearer wasn’t expecting it either. With weary disappointment, the parachute began steering Zack’s ascent/descent toward the incoming asteroid in a route that would, hopefully, be safer than just crashing into it. Milliseconds later, it triggered the proximity alarm, the closest alarm to to the current situation based on what its logic sensors could tell. Finally, it opted not to activate the one-use heat shield. The trip to the next asteroid would be uncomfortably cold, but it would be survivable for the few seconds that it lasted.
“What now?” asked Zack, looking over his shoulder at the parachute. The alarm was worrying. He thought he could see Carmen trying to pin Nectra on the surface of the asteroid below. Suddenly, his orientation shifted as the parachute on his back activated its thrusters, spinning him upside-down. Zack screamed at the sudden spin, not ready for his view to be filled by the green planet that had been overhead moments ago.
Zack took a few deep breaths. The spin made sense. His parachute would want him to land feet first, and it would be better to do that now instead of much, much closer to the surface.
Zack’s view of Mandrake was suddenly blocked by another landmass as another asteroid careened into his path. Zack waved his arms frantically and futilely, not noticing a second set of thrusters activating to cancel the spin and guide his descent. The parachute located a wonderful landing patch, flat and uncomplicated. Even better, someone was already there to lend assistance in case this sudden landing didn’t go as planned. It might not be the trip that the parachute expected, but it was turning into an incredible journey just the same.
Zack prepared for impact as well as he could. Thanks to the relatively small size of the asteroids, only a few moments passed before he saw the asteroid’s controller below him. He’d instinctively expected to see another racer, but grimaced at the sight of the only other option. The Phantom Matador looked up at him, raising a glowing phase sword in greeting.
Zack’s robotic parachute guided his descent, furiously firing the thrusters so that Zack landed with a grace that surprised him. The thrusters and balancing arms in the parachute folded, and he glared at The Phantom Matador as the mysterious man in black spun his sword in a circle, as if preparing for a duel.
“So the fair lady Carmen, greatest of the Asteroid Racers and truest of the petrakinetics, devised a ruse. Rather than hiring people to wait outside of the race to catch me when I arrive or depart as the Racing Federation did, she hires an investigative bodyguard to wait on her very vessel. An ingenious plan. I don’t mind saying that I’ve not anticipated it.”
“What?” asked Zack. Instantly, it occurred to him that the Phantom Matador was the one significant adversary in his life who didn’t know that there was a price on his head.
“Right!” he said, correcting himself. “Carmen’s idea, one I was happy to execute. I admit I’m not used to jumping between asteroids, but I figured it was the best option.”
“I have many prepared steps for dancing with Carmen,” said the Matador. “Many methods of prolonging the celestial chase. But I admit that I’m eager to try my hand at improvising. Don’t expect this to go as well for you as it did at the hotel.”
“Buddy, you’ve got the wrong idea about you and Carmen,” said Zack, drawing his pistols. “If you think she wants to dance with someone who uses a word like celestial, I think you’ve got the wrong idea about her. She’s not interested.”
The Matador’s eyes narrowed. Zack couldn’t see the rest of his face due to the mask he wore, but he imagined from the furrowing of the brow that the Matador was contemplating something. After a moment he deactivated his phase sword and turned from Zack to stare into the sky.
“I know,” he said. “She will almost certainly never see me in that way. But the sport she perfected… the techniques she refined… they will not be denied to me. In time, perhaps she will accept my contributions to the field.”
“If you think any of the racers see what you’re doing as contributing-”
“Why not?” he said. “The rabble adores me, the Federation supports me… I’ve even learned that my statistics will be included in the final listings for the season.”
“What?” asked Zack, his pistols dropping. Something seemed off about that information. Off in a familiar way.
“I won’t be listed as an official racer, of course. My scores will be modified to reflect the fact that I am not registered, and that I always entered races well after the starting line. But perhaps, in time, I can continue my work as a true racer from behind the mask. No career has had such a storied start as mine.”
Zack smiled as the pieces went together. He leveled his weapons at the Matador again, changing the settings to stun.
“Sorry,” he said. “The mask just came off. For me at least.”
“What?” asked the Matador, turning back.
“I know who you are,” said Zack.
The Matador’s eyes narrowed again. The sword in his hand reactivated.
“No you don’t,” said The Matador.
“Oh, I do,” said Zack. “Well… eighty percent sure. Put your sword down, and land on Mandrake unless you want me to shoot you again.”
“You’ve never shot me,” said The Matador. “You only shot the rocks I propelled at you at the hotel.”
Before Zack could reply a thunderous quake ripped through The Phantom Matador’s asteroid, throwing Zack to his knees. Irritatingly, The Matador rolled with the tremor, rocking his legs to keep his footing. The two looked in the direction of the noise and saw another asteroid, slammed into the surface of The Matador’s.
“Flashman,” said The Matador. “The child seeks to interfere.”
Another crash from the opposite direction caused the two to spin. Zack saw an asteroid covered with vines and plants impacting The Matador’s rock. Vines from the new asteroid quickly shot out to wrap around protrusions upon the Matador’s little world.
“No,” said The Matador. “The interlopers have conspired against me.”
“Sorry,” said Zack. “You had to know that this wouldn’t last. Now, put down your weapons before-”
The Phantom Matador spun in place, and like a ballet performer leaped through the air toward Zack. The phase sword in his hand swung down an instant after Zack leaped back himself, the glow of the energy blade ionizing the air in front of him and leaving the scent of evaporating rain. Zack fired with his pistols at close range, but The Matador bent to the side with nearly supernatural speed. As another tremor shook the asteroid from the two racers on either side of the rock working together to bring it down, Zack twirled his weapons and faced his enemy, thinking about the footwork he’d just seen.
“Awful fast there,” he said. “Too slow to peg me, but too fast for me to hit at point blank range?”
“Don’t count on being lucky a second time,” said The Matador, leaning back into a defensive stance, holding his blade ready. Zack took a deep breath and focused on the ground, keeping a close eye on The Matador’s feet.
“People like me don’t get lucky,” said Zack. “Doesn’t stop us from getting people like you.”
The smallest displacement of dust an inch to the left of The Matador told Zack everything he needed. He fired his pistols frantically, and The Phantom Matador tried dodging again. This time the dodge intersected with the blast of energy from the Striker pistols. The Matador screamed in surprise, his sword flickered and deactivated, and he fell to the ground.
“Head games,” said Zack. “Minor illusions. Not enough to really be in two places at once, but just enough to be a little ahead of the curve. I’m betting the mutation that gives you petrakinesis also lets you dabble in that kind of thing, just like Carmen’s gives her some say on how gravity works around her. Am I right? Or are you just ridiculously fast? If so, then I guess I was wrong; I do get lucky.”
The Phantom Matador groaned a response, too stunned to reply, or likely too stunned to be aware of what was happening. Zack saw the hilt of what would be the phase blade if it was activated and kicked it away just before The Matador’s twitching hand could reach out to reclaim it.
“I’m guessing it’s also helped you to stay undetected, but you can explain that from behind bars. Sad to say that I can’t stay around for the trial, but since it looks like Carmen and her two friends will be able to cart you off to jail there’s really no need for me to do that, is there?”
Zack turned The Phantom Matador over with his foot and looked into the stunned eyes of the would-be racer. He leaned down and grabbed the brim of The Matador’s wide hat and the black cloth mask with his hands.
“No reason I can’t satisfy my curiosity and see if I’m right, though. Let’s see who you really are…”
Two clawed feet landed on Zack’s back, propelling him forward and away from The Phantom Matador. Zack rolled to a stop and looked behind him to see Nectra landing between him and The Matador, a mad look in her eyes and a twirling staff in her hand, apparently no longer carrying a sufficient charge to maintain the scythe blade. After a moment, she held up a finger as if asking for a moment while her wings wrapped around herself. She breathed heavily, shivering.
“In the space between asteroids? Yeah, it’s cold,” said Zack. He noticed an unusual chill in the air, though, something even colder than the already cool air on the surface of the Asteroids. He looked in the air behind Nectra and saw Carmen’s asteroid, closer to The Phantom Matador’s than it had been even when he’d made the jump between the two.
Nectra finished warming up and excitedly looked to Zack.
“Well then,” she said. “We need to finish this. I really am sorry, but it’s the only way.”
“Hold on,” said Zack. “You shouldn’t have been that cold. You were freezing. How long until-”
“Wait, is this asteroid’s racer unconscious?” asked Nectra, seeing the Matador on the ground.
“Well… stunned, maybe,” said Zack.
“This asteroid is completely uncontrolled,” said Nectra, suddenly terrified. “He can’t keep his focus like that. No guidance. No speed. …no one to maintain our atmosphere. Zack, I think we’re moments from total decompression!”