Carmen felt the crunch of the ship on the opposite side of her asteroid and scanned the skies for the next target. The nearly crippled law enforcement vessel that she, Vince and Xorn’Tal saved had given up trying to convince them to leave, and had instead left to find a dock where it could be repaired. More of the strange ships had blasted into the system near Mandrake, and most had ignored the racers, but four others had stopped to attack. Each racer had landed the final, crushing strike that left the ships drifting in the vacuum on two so far, and Carmen was eager to get to three before Vince or Xorn’Tal could.
Another ship neared Mandrake, bearing the same logo that Carmen had started to recognize, half of an eye’s outer edge with an entire pupil in the center. The ship was much larger than the flimsy fighter ships that she had been tearing apart.
“We might not want to take on that one,” said Vince.
“Show some backbone, will ya?”
“New ship: heavy structure,” said Xorn’tal. “Hull: strong. Aerodynamics: unimportant. Asteroid structure: weaker.”
“Maybe yours is,” said Carmen.
“Hey, Carmen, that shangmere lady carved up your ride pretty badly. It’s been a rush fighting off… whatever these are, but we’ve been taking some damage too. It won’t take them long to figure out that they can just target the single, mostly defenseless life form on each asteroid to end the problem. Besides, the police got away, so we’re not protecting the Phantom Matador data anymore.”
Carmen started to respond but a public channel began broadcasting. She switched feeds just as the incoming message started.
“Petrakinetic racers,” said the strong voice on the other end of the line, “do not interfere. We are the first salvo of The Dyson Empire’s attack on the Veskid system. We respect your desire to stand your ground. Understand that our fight is not with members of the federation, but with the authorities of Veskid.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were phrasing that to try and side with us by making the big tamales on Veskid seem like a common enemy,” said Carmen.
“What?” said the voice. “No, I’m not.”
“Seems like you are,” said Vince. “No different than corporations who try to look cool by paying celebrities to say they were paid to endorse their product.”
“Manipulation: not antagonistic: perpetual.”
“…What?” said the voice on the other end.
“He says that just because you’re trying to be hip, it doesn’t really mean that you’re wrong,” said Carmen. “It doesn’t mean that you’re right, either.”
“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter,” said the voice. “We’ll make a deal, though: you stop smashing our ships, we don’t blast your asteroids out of the sky. You can’t stop us from invading, but we’ll let you steer clear.”
“Not enough,” said Carmen. “I want you to stop passing by Mandrake. Don’t come near this planet when you invade the system.”
“Seriously?” said the voice. “It’s a major path, right on our route.”
“Look, either stay far enough from Mandrake that you’re not showing up on local channels, or know that you’re going to have to slow down to tangle with us until you take us down. Yeah, you’ll probably blast us out of the sky eventually, but how sure are you that it’ll be soon enough to keep us from being a liability?”
“Pretty sure,” said the voice. “I’m especially certain if we don’t let the first few waves against you be the model you’re used to fighting.”
“You’re telling me your military plans’ll seriously be hampered by going a bit to the left or the right for however long Mandrake’s orbit keeps it in your way?”
The voice went silent, but in the background Carmen heard muffled discussions. Soon, a new voice was heard.
“We’ll consider your offer,” said the new voice. “While we consider, would you give us time for this vessel to retrieve the ships you’ve disabled? We’re detecting life signs, but they may need medical attention.”
“Deal,” said Carmen. “Signing off for now, call us when you make up your mind.”
Carmen switched off the main channel and opened the private one between herself, Xorn’Tal and Vince Flashman.
“I don’t trust ‘em,” said Vince.
“Obviously,” said Carmen. “They’ll try to push through before too long.”
“Wouldn’t be a crazy idea to pull back,” said Vince.
“Not just yet,” said Carmen. “I think we can slow ‘em down here for a bit longer.”
“Xorn’Tal and I can. Is your asteroid really up to it?”
Carmen concentrated and felt the structure of the Kinetic Kuiper. It was bad. There was a lot of density to it, but it wouldn’t be long before she was juggling multiple objects instead of propelling a single one. It was still repairable, but only just.
“It’ll have to be,” she said. “I’ve still gotta get my friend off that planet.”
“With just an asteroid? With no landing or retrieval gear?”
“I’ll solve that problem when we get to it,” she said.
Much earlier, on another world…
Zack looked through his binoculars, an old fashioned approach that didn’t leave an electromagnetic signature like most long-range visual scanners and didn’t leave cyber footprints like redirected satellites. From his camouflaged tent on scenic Mount Porthinel he counted the seconds while watching the resort hotel that housed some of the richest and most celebrated people who ever wanted to relax without answering any uncomfortable questions.
Another thirty seconds and the doors to the gated pool area opened to reveal Azar and the towering form of Harold Zamona behind him, right on schedule. Over the last month, Zack had found the six best places on the mountain for observing Azar and Zamona. It had been rough going, but he was willing to accept the fact that Zamona legitimately meant no harm to Azar after so long. The two had enjoyed the luxuries offered by Ravelar, and Zamona hadn’t once done anything suspicious. Either Zamona was playing a very, very long game, or he was genuinely willing to assist Azar on this life of leisurely adventure.
Zack’s timer chimed. He took a deep breath and put away his binoculars. It would take him time to get off the mountain and even longer to walk to the space port, plus he should add time to dress in a manner that would make it look like he hadn’t been camping on a mountain for a month. He’d given himself two hours, but it would likely only take Azar and Zamona ten minutes, giving them plenty of time to enjoy some poolside fun. He’d have more of a head start than he’d need.
“He didn’t send a message saying that he’d missed the flight, did he?” asked Azar.
“No,” said Zamona, watching the passengers collecting their luggage. “But unless he’s not with the passengers of the Daring Dozen, he’s just not here.”
“I don’t like this,” said Azar, watching a blue-skinned cross between a mosquito and a jackal retrieving its luggage from the baggage claim.
“He should have let me pay for it all.”
“And miss my chance at testing out my infiltration technique?” asked Zack, walking up behind them. Azar spun in place, laughed at the sight of Zack, and gave the detective a quick hug. Harold Zamona merely smirked.
“You’re telling me you got on that plane without anyone knowing?”
“I had an earlier flight, actually,” said Zack. “I just knew that I’d be presentable by the time the Daring Dozen was disembarking. You don’t want to see a person right after they’ve been hiding by a Pestle Reactor for half a week.”
“You were hiding by the Pestle Reactor?” said Azar.
“No, but it’s fun to tell people that I can,” said Zack.
“I was about to say, that could cause brain damage, if not outright death,” said Azar. “I should know, some of my money came from working near an unshielded one for two hours a day to help Bristlecorp’s project finish on time.”
“You wouldn’t believe the things this guy did,” said Azar. “He’s been telling me all of the things he got his payment for. Can you believe they’d send someone with three Ph.D.’s into space just to do some soldering?”
“Absolutely,” said Zack. “But only because I’ve been doing my homework, and having a few other people do homework for me so that my poking around wouldn’t raise too many red flags. They needed the best and brightest to do the work, and with all the ethical concerns about programming artificial intelligences to be willing to toss their lives down the drain for projects on this level, they went with good old fashioned human laborers for suspiciously large payouts. Azar, we always knew that you were lucky to survive there, but I think I’ve found evidence that you’ve been even luckier than you knew. Some of those projects were all-but designed to kill off workers before they finished their work.”
“What?” said Azar, his brow creasing.
“Absolutely,” said Zack. “Don’t worry, though, it might be our ace in the hole. Sister Barris and I were hoping to find evidence that would link BristleCorp to the price on your head in a way that would make them hyper-liable if anything shy of natural causes did you in, but we weren’t expecting quite so much. Seriously, Barris is good at her job.”
“She does seem diligent,” said Azar. “She could make sense of a document that I’d never be able to understand.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, smart guy,” said Zack. “Or her, either. Some of the riskier documents she procured through less than legal methods. I won’t tell you that she almost strangled the friend of someone who pulled a gun on her, and I won’t tell you that she now knows that her WimpHelm will, in fact, stop a knife.”
“You sure you need me on this security job?” asked Zamona.
“Absolutely,” said Azar. “Zack can’t be both here and investigating my case back home.”
“Right,” said Zack, thinking over the last month of mountain-side camping and spying on people who were paying for the privilege of not being spied upon. “Though with some of the dirt uncovered by the people I’ve been asking to do side research for me, it’s possible that I might be able to stick around for a bit longer than planned.”
“Excellent!” said Azar. “It’ll be wonderful to have you around.”
“Is it necessary, though?” asked Zamona. “A third party might draw more attention.”
“There’s a little risk, yes,” said Zack. “Unfortunately, I think it’s necessary. There are a few things I need to find out, and you’ll be the best person to ask, Azar.”
“I’ll help however I can,” said Azar.
“Good,” said Zack. “Because we’re going to figure out each and every way that BristleCorp tried to kill you.”