“We have a problem, sir.”
Vox Cul-Dar turned from the window by his seat and looked into the face of the ship’s captain. He knew that on a larger ship a discussion of problems would have been delegated to an underling, but the other crew were probably busy with essential tasks. Vox stared at the captain with his large, unblinking eyes, knowing that humans found it unsettling. The captain, used to shady employers and employees, took it as his cue to continue.
“We’re approaching Mandrake,” said the captain. “There aren’t any problems with your direct instructions as written, but the situation near Mandrake isn’t ideal for your drop. An alarming number of witnesses hovering near the planet, almost all on the side where you want to be dropped.”
“What sort of witnesses?”
“Mostly people from that group that races asteroids, so there’s a lot of rocks waiting right by where we’d fly, each with one or two petrakinetics. There’s also a few small ships connected to the organization, and one of their security ships. Worse than that, though, there’s a vessel from a news organization, so there’s a reporter mixed in with the witnesses.”
“So it’s more than just Carmen Shift and her friends now,” said Vox.
“You expected this kind of traffic?”
“It’s what brought me here. No matter; I can be seen taking this trip, even if it risks tipping my hand to competitors. Carry out the plans as discussed.”
“We’ll have to wait for a moment when we can carry out your instructions with more discretion.”
“I’m not paying for discretion,” said Vox, lifting one of his serrated arms to point emphatically as he spoke. “I’m paying to be deposited on that planet and picked up later.”
The captain looked at Vox’s insect-like arm and then back at his eyes, not phased by either.
“I think you misunderstand, sir. I didn’t say you had a problem, I said that we had one. We can’t be seen taking you to Mandrake. Unless you want to pay more than it’s worth to give us the license we’d need to make this trip legal, there’s no way we can safely land without causing trouble. We’ll be waiting for the traffic to clear up from a safe distance. With luck they’ll just assume we’re curious racing fans taking a detour from our shipping schedule to get a closer look at what’s happening.”
Vox narrowed his eyes, a habit he’d picked up from humans. He felt anger at the delay, but heard many of Rendelac’s teachings bubbling up in the back of his mind from previous times he’d let his anger carry him away.
“This is unfortunate,” he finally said. “Take your time, but please approach the planet the moment it becomes safe to do so.”
“Thank you,” said the captain, turning to walk toward the cargo hold.
Vox turned back to his window and stared at the stars outside. He wasn’t sure why the racing federation was taking so long on the other side of the planet, but knew that his lead on finding Gamma would evaporate if it lasted too long. Whatever the business was, he hoped it was worth it.
“I couldn’t be happier for Andara,” said Carmen, speaking to the reporter over her headset. “I’m glad to see a rookie do so well.”
“Miss Fugue will be happy to hear that,” said the reporter. “It’s got to be a shame to not come in first yourself, though.”
“Oh,” said Carmen, mentally keeping herself from grinding her teeth, “it’s not so bad. I was just racing for fun since I’d pre-qualified. Winning’s not im… winning’s not that important. I can handle not… finishing. It was more important that Xorn’Tal, Flashman and I try to take down the Phantom Matador.”
“And you came pretty close from what I hear,” said the reporter. “If not for the shangmere stowaway, you-”
“Yeah, it’s a real shame,” said Carmen. “I’m just glad he didn’t cross the finish line.”
“This makes the second time an asteroid of his has been captured without anyone being able to contain the Phantom Matador himself. Do you think he’ll ever be captured?”
“If he ever shows his face again, absolutely,” said Carmen. “Hey, this is starting to feel more like a press release than an interview, so could I-”
“Any thoughts on the Federation’s decision to include the Phantom Matador in the official statistics of the Corona Circuit’s races? It’s only been a few hours since they announced the decision, but it’s already-”
Carmen closed the channel, tapped her headset in frustration, and sent a call to Xorn’Tal. The alien plant creature answered almost immediately.
“Greetingage,” he said.
“Did they finally stop peppering you with questions, or did you get mad like I did?”
“Entity-None: angry: like Carmen.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Reporters: inquiry cessation. Discovery theirs: interview mine: difficult.”
“Yeah, I wonder why they felt that way. Any word from Vince?”
“Reporters: inquiry continuation: Vince.”
“He always did like a camera. Any thoughts on how much longer we’ll need to be up here?”
“Police: investigation pends. Asteroid: examination. Unit-Corona Champions: examination: medical.”
“Why haven’t we gotten our medical exam yet?”
“Doctor Zeta: delay. Ruling preference: examination medical: unnecessary.”
“I agree, but the fed’s gotta be sure that we’re okay. We were off the grid for the last third of that race. If nothing else, Zeta could use a petrakinetic scanner and make sure that no one’s being tricked by the Phantom Matador into thinking he’s not there. Last thing we want is for him to get away again.”
“Phantom Matador: escape: fact.”
“Maybe,” said Carmen. “I’m worried about the fact that I didn’t see it happen.”
“Right, it is,” said Carmen. “I don’t think he could trick out what I was feeling on the rock. But if he could…”
Carmen looked at the plethora of asteroids in the sky above, a hemisphere filled with concerned racing officials.
“I don’t know how he would’ve hidden the bat from all of us. But if he could, I’d be more worried.”
“Right,” said Carmen. “I’ve just seen one too many horror flicks where the mutant has one last power that nobody knows about. Like the one where the aquakinetic was also ferrokinetic and could send his mind through copper wires.”
“Movie writing: bad, implausible.”
“I hope you’re right, Xorn’Tal. I hope you’re right.”