“And the winner is… Andara Fugue, the furious first-timer from far off Fenris! Winning by a wide margin, this is her first race on a federation-sanctioned circuit. While it won’t have a direct effect on the season’s standings, this qualifying race should already have the bookies scrambling to adjust her odds for the Nebula Circuit. Still no official word from the Corona Cup victors on why they’re so far from the finish line, and they’ve maintained radio silence since seemingly stalling by Mandrake, but we’ve got officials nearing their position to find out what’s up.”
Carmen felt the boots of Vince Flashman landing on her asteroid, and took the welcome opportunity to stop listening to Mark Matthew’s color commentary. She opened a channel with Vince, preparing to coordinate.
“Welcome to my ride,” said Carmen. “Don’t track mud all over it.”
“Right,” said Vince. “Carmen, this feels… off. I knew you had some tiny caves in the Kinetic Kuiper, but this doesn’t feel structurally stable.”
“It was that stowaway,” said Carmen. “She had some kind of energy weapon. I tried ripping rocks to fence her in, but she just started slicing her way out. So about twice as much damage happened as I intended.”
“Think you’ll still be able to use it?”
“I hope so. Took me forever to find one this nice.”
“I bet. It was hard to believe its stats on the federation’s cards when I read ‘em.”
“You pick up the federation’s collectible merch? Dude, the band shouldn’t wear its own t-shirts to a gig, it’s tacky.”
“Hey, I won’t apologize for the hobby. I only joined the federation last year, and I had the Kinetic Kuiper’s card two years ago.”
“Well, I’m sure the Federation appreciates your donation in exchange for digital collectibles.”
“Never did the digicards,” he said. “I bought the physical ones.”
“Nice,” said Carmen. “Want me to sign it after we’re out of here?”
“You already did.”
“Yeah, two years ago after you won at the Ray’s World Races. You had a few minutes to sign things before dashing off, you got it signed then.”
Carmen remembered the race. Ray’s World wasn’t on the beaten path. Most of the spectators there were already racers, but on unofficial courses. Most of the people sticking around to sign things were already doing well for themselves in the semi-legal racing on that world, or they were looking for good chances to network and find better chances at better races. She signed a lot of things there, and couldn’t recall any faces clearly.
“Whoa,” she said. “Man, I’m sorry, I don’t remember you from that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You didn’t know me then, and you had a lot of people wanting autographs.”
“Not as many as usual,” she said. She winced, realizing that sounded like she was bragging.
“I mean, the crowd there was a good one, they were the real deal,” she said. “I should be able to remember people from that group. I’ve gotta stop being a sell out.”
“Carmen, you’re not a sell out,” he said. “Are we going to keep talking about if you’re awesome enough to be an asteroid racer, or are we going to work on tugging you out of this death spiral?”
“Right,” she said. “Sorry, I’ve just not thought about Ray’s World in a while. With two of us, moving up and out should be a breeze. Let’s roll.”
Vox Cul-Dar scrolled through the options in the Rythnian Boutique’s catalog. He loved the way they were organized by lethality. Death in an hour, half an hour, a third of an hour, a fourth of an hour… the bizarre effects were almost secondary to the artistry of application.
“The finish line has been crossed in the qualifying race for the Nebula Cup,” said Rendelac, the computer’s eye switching from orange to green.
“I don’t want to hear about Carmen Shift,” said Vox. “She fired me from her assignment, and as such only interests me as a lead for catching Gamma. Do you think a poison is more effective through an injury, skin contact, inhalation or ingestion? Applying poison to a weapon has a bit of poetry to it, but I’d need to find one that would affect Zack without affecting me.”
“The winner was not Carmen Shift,” said Rendelac.
“No? Did The Phantom Matador surprise everyone again?”
“Yes and no,” said Rendelac. “The winner of the race was newcomer Andara Fugue. The Phantom Matador, while present on the race, did not win.”
“Well, I suppose my services would not be required even if I was there, then, if the Matador isn’t crossing the finish line.”
“The Matador appeared near the world of Mandrake. As it so happened, Carmen shift, Vince Flashman and Xorn’Tal were all heading in that direction. Mandrake itself, while a valid location in the race course, was off the beaten path. A theoretical speed boost is possible, and racers of their caliber are certainly capable of achieving positive results from such a risky attempt, but it’s an unusual coincidence that they would all try it.”
“If they were trying to show each other up, I can certainly understand them trying it together,” said Vox.
“The Matador and the three racers moved to the far side of Mandrake, and then seemed to vanish. Glimpses of them have been seen from long-range scans, but they’ve not returned yet from that side. Perhaps they joined forces to subdue the Matador, but complications arose. They don’t appear to be in danger, but they are suspiciously silent, not even communicating with their racing crews.”
“You’re correct that this is strange,” said Vox. “If they subdued the Phantom Matador… or if the Matador were assaulting them in some way… they would communicate. Are you suggesting some other secrecy in play?”
“Racers are known for sticking together in the face of what they view as unnecessary consequences from authorities, even among rivals. If one of them has a secret, it would be easy to convince the others to maintain it.”
Vox considered this. Xorn’Tal and Flashman were unknown factors and could have any number of secrets. But Carmen…
“Gamma,” he said. “Could someone hide on one of those asteroids?”
“It’s possible,” said Rendelac.
“And from the far side of Mandrake, no one could see an asteroid land to let off a passenger, and that would take time…”
“It’s more likely that the Matador caused some delay, and that a passenger would jump,” said Rendelac. “An asteroid that lands on a planet is very difficult to retrieve.”
“Of course,” said Vox. “Regardless… it sounds like Carmen’s been hiding Zack in plain sight.”
“Hidden inside an asteroid and revealing him on the opposite side of another planet where no long-range scanners are positioned to see anything is hardly pl-”
“I’m setting an order for poison, Rendelac,” said Vox. “I need to go off world. Have my order delivered so that I can pick it up on the way.”