Carmen stopped mentally prodding her asteroid and took a deep breath.
“Okay, we’re cool. I don’t think we’ll be crashing today.”
“That would’ve made an amazing news story, though,” said Vince, releasing his mental hold on the asteroid as well. “I can just see the headlines. ‘Flashman and Shift Missing on Mandrake: Racers Presumed Dead After Nebula Cup Qualifier.’”
“I think you got our names backward on that one. No way I’d get second billing to you.”
“They’re going alphabetically,” said Vince. He looked up from the rocky terrain of the asteroid and saw the comforting expanse of stars overhead. He knew that if they stood on the opposite side of the asteroid they’d see Mandrake filling the sky, and that its toxic rain clouds and vast jungles might just be discernible from this altitude. Instead, he saw the comforting image of three other asteroids, one being his own.
“Now we’ve just gotta get me back to my ride,” he said.
“Thanks again,” said Carmen. “Probably could’ve gotten myself out of the planet’s pull without help, of course, but I’d be having a mondo headache right now. One for the history books.”
Their headsets chimed, each with a tone that let them know that Xorn’Tal was trying to speak. They’d cut off the headsets to minimize distractions while tugging Carmen’s asteroid out of its fall to Mandrake, but now that they were done Xorn’Tal had something to say.
“Hope he’s not been waiting long,” said Vince as they activated their comm sets.
“What’s up, Xorn’Tal?” asked Carmen.
“Officials: nearing,” said the plant creature’s synthesized voice.
“Good,” said Vince. “We can show them that we caught the Phantom Matador’s asteroid.”
“But the Matador got away,” said Carmen, glumly. “That… stupid bat.”
“Shangmere,” said Vince. “I don’t think they like being called bats.”
“Right, sorry,” said Carmen. “I’m just… we had him. The Phantom Matador was unconscious, on my asteroid, and officials were minutes away, and then that stowaway grabs him and leaps for Mandrake.”
“Look at the bright side,” said Vince. “He probably burned up in entry.”
“Right, but now we’ll never know who he was,” said Carmen. “I wanted him in jail. This’ll just give him a mysterious exit without knowing who he is. Watch, five years from now the racing federation’ll probably hire someone to be the new Phantom Matador and mess with racers again.”
“Maybe that’s what they did this time,” said Vince.
“I doubt it. The suits aren’t that creative.”
“Other concern: plasma report,” said Xorn’Tal.
“Plasma report?” asked Vince.
“Edge of system: racers/stragglers: watched. Sensors: long-range: energy signature: massive. Plasma storm: causeless.”
“I’m sure it’ll be on the news when we get back to Veskid tonight,” said Carmen.
“Hey, at least your friend’s jump went well,” said Vince. “You know. Eventually.”
“Right,” said Carmen. “I’ll need to pick him up eventually. You guys are still good not mentioning him, right?”
“Absolutely,” said Vince. “Gotta help out our fellow adrenaline junkies.”
Zack nervously watched the nearing ground, reflexively waving his arms even though he knew that the parachute would keep him safe. True to Carmen’s word, the robotic elements of the parachute were steering him toward a clearing, but the nearby jungle still loomed ominously.
He took a deep breath and braced for impact as he dropped the last dozen feet, but was surprised by the sudden jet of compressed air released by the parachute, providing some extra thrust to make the final moments of descent that much slower. The extra efficiency caused Zack to over-correct, and trip on his feet as he reached the ground.
He brought his arms up to keep his face from colliding with the ground. Just before he could get his bearings, the parachute fell as well, covering him. Already worried about the potential for jungle insects, Zack thrashed madly beneath the parachute, trying to extricate himself.
From the tree line, Chala watched him carefully, an arrow set in her bow. The newcomer certainly didn’t seem like the standard poacher, but he still had to leave.
Captain Ortega and Ensign Trell looked out the window of their dead ship, and witnessed the vast array of Dyson Empire vessels around them.
“This is… unexpected,” said Trell.
“Where are we?” asked Ortega. “I don’t recognize any of those stars. Was… was this a projected teleport? Can Dyson teleport ships? Some sort of jump drive?”
“It seems so,” said Trell. “But… I know it’s folly to try to recognize constellations from a variable position within a system, but I’ve crossed Morcalan space many, many times… something looks wrong about that.”
“Are you there?” crackled Trell’s communicator.
“Captain?” said Trell. “Captain, you made it with us?”
“It seems so,” said Captain Calen from within her Scuttler. “We seem to be in a mobile hornet’s nest, Trell… oh, the delicious targets… attacking now would be suicide, of course, we mustn’t attack yet…”
Ortega breathed a sigh of relief. Trell glared at him.
“I think Captain Ortega expected you to try to blast your way to victory,” Trell said.
“The thought crossed my mind,” said Calen. “Had we a dozen vessels I probably would, for victory then would be assured. But as it is now… we have a chance that we mustn’t squander. We’re in a dire situation, though, one that I’ve not yet solved.”
“And what’s that,” asked Ortega.
“How long until some ship captain looks out its window and realizes that we’re not a single vessel, but a depowered Dyson fighter being clutched in the talons of a powered Morcallan scuttler?”
A tense moment of silence filled the chamber.
“I’ll get to work on those reactor repairs, Captain,” said Trell.
“See that you do.”