Zack ran across the surface of the Phantom Matador’s asteroid, moving as quickly as he could while trying to keep it from being obvious that he was just running to Xorn’Tal’s asteroid. In truth there were fewer than two hundred yards between himself and the vine alien’s rock, but the curvature of the horizon made it appear further away. Nectra seemed smart, but easily distracted. He hoped that she wouldn’t know what was happening until she was at Carmen’s asteroid and he was either on Xorn’Tal’s or, even better, halfway to Mandrake.
He ran to the top of a ridge and jumped to clear extra distance, but felt a wave of vertigo that pulled him down faster than he expected. Zack slammed into the ground and picked himself up. Half-remembered equations from school involving terms like “tidal forces” and “inverse square law” ran through his head, and he desperately wished he could remember exactly how they worked.
He looked up and could start to see Mandrake peeking over the corner of the ground below him, ground that had previously been above him back when he’d been on Carmen’s asteroid. A short distance away, strange vines colored in bright greens and oranges stretched from another rock, vines that loosely tethered the two asteroids together. Periodically the vine-covered asteroid would bob outward, creating a small chasm, only to have the two rocks be pulled together again with a tremor. Zack swallowed nervously, picked himself up and continued running, closing the distance.
Another sensation of vertigo flowed over him as he neared what he hoped was the place where the two gravity wells overlapped. Under any other set of circumstances he might wonder if there was something medically wrong as he felt pulled “down” in two different directions. He took a deep breath, picked a vine, and jumped.
Zack had overestimated just how strong the gravity “beneath” him was, and flew through the air much farther than anticipated. He frantically grabbed for his target vine before he sailed past it, and felt the leathery, sinuous textures of the alien vegetation from Xorn’Tal’s homeworld (or, alternatively, vegetation that was a part of Xorn’Tal. Zack wasn’t sure how it worked with this particular species, or even what Xorn’Tal’s species was for that matter.) His velocity yanked him toward Xorn’Tal’s asteroid furiously, making him wish that he’d been wearing gloves.
Another rumble shook through the vine as the two asteroids bumped together again, and Zack was relieved that traveling by vine proved more viable than running up to the physical point of connection between the two landmasses. He took a moment to collect his bearings, looked along the vine to the vegetation-choked rock ahead, and started the climb.
Nectra was terrified and elated.
It was a common misconception that her species could fly. Most alien races who came from planets with bird or insect analogues recognized wings for what they were, and reasoned that a species with wings could probably attain flight, despite the awkward weight-to-wingspan issue. A very tiny percentage of the shangmere population had the right combination of weight, muscle, wing-type, drive, and recklessness required to attain tiny increases in altitude, but everyone else had to be happy gliding (or, if they were wealthy, purchasing propulsion jackets or anti-gravity harnesses to supplement their wings to the point that they could truly fly.)
Low gravity situations could affect the nature of things, however, and while Nectra knew in her head that she was effectively just using her wings to control a jump from one place that would let her land on another, the actual flapping motions were similar enough that she felt very much like the dreams of flying she used to have when she was little. She was terrified that she’d hit a point that lacked atmosphere and ruin the illusion, but the good news was that Carmen’s asteroid was approaching so fast that it wouldn’t matter either way.
She spun in the air so that her feet were pointing “down”, opened her wings wide to catch what she could of the incredibly thin air, and pulled out her staff to help with the balance. Carrying the Phantom Matador in her hands would make an already tricky maneuver borderline dangerous, but she was convinced that she could handle it.
The human over her shoulder moved suddenly, and she repositioned her staff to try and keep the Matador secured.
“Unhand me!” he said.
“No!” she said. “No, no I can’t do that!”
A voice in her head told her that she’d just missed an amazing opportunity for being smug, and that saying something like ‘You really don’t want me to do that’ would help her seem more cool and collected than she felt, but she shushed the voice.
The human moved again and she heard a gasp.
“No! My asteroid…”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You were knocked out, and we didn’t think you’d recover this fast! We had to leave quickly, or else all the atmosphere and gravity would start going crazy.”
Nectra hit the ground, hard. Her clawed feet helped to absorb the impact, but she still wound up rolling forward. She’d imagined a graceful somersault in her mind, but wound up face-planting into the ground and sliding. She dropped the Matador, but in an affront to everything fair about the situation he managed to perform the exact kind of roll that she’d visualized, ending with a hop back onto his feet. He looked over his shoulder and narrowed his eyes at her, contemplating.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I think I grazed my cheek. And arms. I’m… fine, but I need something in case of infection.”
“The odds of such injuries becoming infected in an environment like this are infinitesimal,” he said, turning to face her. He knelt down and looked over her face studiously.
“It all looks superficial, too,” he said. “I think that there’s a good chance of rapid healing.”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s hard to say anything with certainty, but I believe so. Regarding infections, it may come down to the sort of environment that the racer maintains. Upon which asteroid did you alight?”
“I… don’t know, I don’t really keep track of sports,” she said. “Kinetic something?”
“That sounds right.”
He stared at her for a moment before looking over her shoulder. His asteroid was still visible, but already falling away, with two other asteroids crushing it between them, as if trying to manhandle it into a forced landing.
“My vessel is lost, at least for now,” he said. “But perhaps… the time has come to meet Miss Shift herself.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” she said. “Zack Gamma told me that you were causing problems for the racers, she might not want to see you.”
“And where is Mister Gamma?”
“He was running to the other side of your asteroid to try to use Mandrake’s gravity to pull him down so that he could more easily jump from your asteroid to this one.”
“Carmen isn’t on a vector to reach the other side,” said the Matador.
“Then why would he…” Nectra paused. She turned and looked back at the asteroid. A moment later she yelped and held a hand up to her mouth. She looked down, glared at the ground and wrung her hands around her staff.
“He tricked me. He could have just gone to another asteroid. Probably… the leafy one, it was closer.”
“People in his business earn their keep by outsmarting people more intelligent than they,” said the Matador. “It’s a rare talent, and useful. I take it you have business with him?”
“I need to kill him.”
“And you suggest that I cross a line by merely approaching my favored racer? Your priorities are skewed, and possibly psychotic.”
“I’m not crazy,” she said, turning to face him. He met her stare, examining her not-quite-human face and seeing her large eyes.
“I didn’t mean that literally,” he said, finally. “It was a poetic descriptor. Though… there’s a bite to your response. You may not be truly mad, but I recommend therapy. See if you can talk through some of it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be going.”
Nectra nodded and watched him walk away. After he cleared a ridge on the asteroid’s surface, she turned back to the sky to look at the green, vegetative asteroid.
Much earlier, on another world…
Harold wasn’t a practiced investigator, but he was thorough. He crossed the ninth name off of the list of DMA Agents who’d been hired for protection work. It was hard to keep tabs on people who were used to working from the shadows, but he was, in time, able to figure out who most of the dozen were protecting, and once he knew that he also knew that they weren’t protecting Azar.
Three names remained on the alphabetical list, names he hadn’t crossed off either because he couldn’t locate who they were protecting or because there was something off about their protections. The fourth name on the list, Fulgurite Octave, was a pyrhian cyborg who went to a bar in a spaceport every Thursday for the last three weeks. From all visual signs, it looked as if Fulgurite Octave wasn’t working at all, but he went to a bank after the bar each time. Thanks to retrieved receipts, Harold could tell that he was depositing money each time, over and above what he was receiving from the Desperate Measures Agency for his alleged protection work. Azar had a lot of money to pay, and an extra fee might be helpful to maintain loyalty from hired protectors, and paying generously for loyalty was a habit Azar had developed if his previous employees were any indication.
The sixth name on the list was Hroob Hrowak, one of the only known surviving Vandecites. Hroob seemed to be protecting Alexander Hirsch, a politician trying to run for a position on the city council. He was running on platforms that could put a damper on a number of the illicit activities in town and elsewhere on the planet, and some very dangerous people had started to offer high prices for Hirsch’s head. Unfortunately, evidence from a bribed mortician earlier in the week suggested that Alexander Hirsch was already dead, so the person that Hroob Hrowak was speaking to through the back door of the Hirsch Recycling Plant couldn’t be Alexander… either that, or the mortician was wrong.
The final name on the list belonged to Zack Gamma, a person who seemed a little too “clean” for working at the Desperate Measures Agency. Harold knew it was unlikely that anyone could join the DMA with a completely clean record, but the work record wasn’t a matter of concern for him yet. Gamma’s job, like Octave’s, didn’t have a listed client, but Zack was going to a laundromat once every three days. After Harold determined the pattern, he was able to get eyes inside. Zack was speaking to one of the proprietors every day, and heading into a back room.
Harold tapped his pen against the last name on the list. Forcing his way into a laundromat would be more visible than he liked, but he didn’t have as many ideas about how to research the other two. Zack Gamma had just taken another job, but it’s possible that it was a dummy assignment meant to throw pursuers off the trail.
Harold smiled, and put the pen down. It was time to meet number twelve.