Mass Wasting: Chapter 11


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CASTRAMARE


The colonial outpost of Castramare lay in a pitted cliff overlooking a basalt mare at the meridian partition of perpetual dark and light. In near shadowed craters lay ice hoards, lifeblood of the frontier stake. The ground was barren, pockmarked and showed no trace of life, save for tracks of a Fabrdyn rover, a multi-legged drone, and its most recent addition, a lion-fish-shaped vessel, bearing the word Raumhake and an anchor-tined star circumscribed by a gear-wreath across its hull. From the nascent machine’s confines, two figures emerged on a skiff and cut an oblique angle toward the ridge.

Within the base, two women conversed, ignorant of the vast form that had descended scarcely two hundred feet hence, and its twin denizens that sped toward them.

“It looks so beautiful,” the brunette declared with a dreamy sigh, gesturing out the window of the expansive lunar habitat, where a thin slice of light girded a darkness that shrouded osseous striations whose aspects appeared to the onlookers as the backs of arenaceous whales.

“Not for long. Soon it’ll be crawling with malls and factories. Same trash heap, different world.”

“Can’t you enjoy anything? Just look at it. I wish I could stand there, on the mare, suitless, and soak in the sun.”

“If you did, you’d explode,” the blonde declared with a theatrical arch of brow.

“You’re so morbid,” the brunette replied with a purse of lips, turning from her companion with a shiver of disgust.

“Unapprized confidence of a danger can be more perilous than the danger itself.”

The two women in the cafeteria spun to the source of the soft spoken words, a man who leaned against the eastern corner, dropping chalky cubes into a cup of steaming liquid and stirring it with considerable focus, contemplating the slow spiral of diverging liquids and the properties that subtended it. He wore an unsealed pressure suit, form fitting and composed of plated green ceramics, undergirded by coriaceous fabric. At the right shoulder, an intricate sigil etched in the composite material, beneath which, the words, Rücklader W.L. Rhiner, Kryos Industrien, Kosmotechnische Gesellschaft. His helmet swung from a short tether at his belt, and his visage was blanched, sharp, party to the pronounced vasculation of extended weightlessness, and crowned in cropped dark hair, thin streaked with silver, brushed forward, smooth to pate. His eyes were unnaturally gray, lustrous as hematite and moved neither to the patrons or the barren vista beyond the wide pane.

He recognized the women from the portraits Vancing gave him. The brunette, Mia Rowson, a mousey dream-laden, chubby figure, born in the fractious metropolis of Aecer, daughter of Arkway director Jerik Rowson, socialite, wine enthusiast and avid collector of romantic literature. The blonde, Jaqi Stalmyre, chic, lissome, sardonic, born to isolated affluence in the Southern Republics, heir to the Stalmyre lithium mining fortune, a close associate of the Rowson family, equestrian, and dilettante antiques broker.

At the arrival, Rowson tinged with excitement, but Stalmyre greeted the man with haughty indifference. Then a wordless, awkward interim.

Rhiner took a sip of his well-spiced beverage before he spoke again, picking up the severed thread of conversation. “You get blown out an airlock, unsuited, the body will swell, but that isn’t what’ll kill you. Pressure loss ruptures the lungs. Hypoxia sets in, induces blindness. Deoxygenated blood is ferried to the brain. Consciousness dissipates in a matter of seconds. Vitals collapse after around two minutes. Usually sooner.”

Rowson’s eyes widened with horror. Stalymyre leaned head to hand, bored, unserious, and retorted playfully. “How would you know? Its not like it ever happened to you.”

The man looked up opaquely from his drink and held the woman’s gaze until she wavered with discomfort. Slowly, he gestured to his antimonial irises. “It did.”

Stalmyre’s mouth parted in astonishment. Before she or her companion could muster a query, an amiable voice resounded. “You’re late, Reclaimer.” The trio turned toward the far end of the cafeteria where a white-haired, round-faced man in a crimson suit stood, hands extended in welcome.

The green clad man offered a languid salute to the white-hair. “Commander Tavistock.”

Red suit moved across the room and extended a hand to Rhiner. “Its Wilhelm, right?”

The armored man took the proffered appendage and shook. “That’s right.”

“Well, I see you met our guests. Have you been properly introduced? This is-“

Impatience rippled through Wilhelm’s visage. “I’d like to get briefed soon as possible, if that’s alright with you.”

Tavistock’s face fell. “Of course. This way.”

The commander nodded and led the reclaimer out of the wide cafeteria to an adjoining office festooned in art prints, lunar graphs and photographs. Tavistock bounded in the awkward hopping fashion required by local gravity, and pushed off too hard. His back legs went out. His front dipped toward the desk. Wilhelm surged forward, caught his host by exposed tether straps that hung from uniform’s upper back to keep the man from cracking his skull and hauled him to a standing position.

“Thanks. I can’t tell you how glad I’ll be when this place gets a halo.”

The commander moved behind the desk, folded out the chair built into it and set himself down with a sigh. Wilhelm did the same with the floorbound chair before the table, his gaze steady.

“I’m sure they told you what’s happened.”

“They did. But I’d like to hear it straight from you, if that’s alright.”

“Sure. Well. A week ago, our ichnography drone went offline. Vanished. Haven’t the faintest idea as to why. All systems were nominal. Problem is, its completely autonomous, self refueling. Normally, that’d be a boon, but now that its wandered off, means it can keep on wandering. Whole mission has slowed to a crawl in its absence. You’ll appreciate, I’m sure, how hard, how dangerous, it’d be for us to do all our surveys by hand. We need it back. I’d have gone out looking for it myself, but, company policy prohibits it.”

“You’ve base and passengers to look after. Can’t take them with you.”

Tavistock nodded. “Especially not now.”

“Why especially?”

“Its meteoroid season.”

Wilhelm retracted a flexile magnetized black square from his belt, scarcely longer and wider than his hand, opened it to reveal a notepad and flat graphite pencil stuck to the inner cover with a velcro strap. “Drone’s last known location?”

“Southern edge of Kalte Höhle Crater, up to the north. Was headed there to map its caves. Fenton had the idea that it might make a good place for a permanent habitat. Strong magnetic fields.”

“So high albedo. Easy to see from orbit. Cover from meteorites.”

“That’s right.”

“Base systems were fine when the machine went dark?”

“Yep.”

“And in the interim?”

“Same.”

Wilhelm leaned forward in his chair. “Commander, it is my opinion that this is the product of sabotage.”

“No. It had to have been a glitch.”

“You sound very confident of that.”

“I know these people. They wouldn’t do something like this. They’ve no cause to.”

“Could have been a third party. Come in on a slipper.”

Tavistock folded his arms. “We would have seen them coming.”

“You didn’t see me.”

Tavistock’s expression darkened. “The company asked you to be discreet. We didn’t expect to expect you. The idea that someone would fly all the way here just to hide our drone is absurd.” When he caught the expression of disbelief on Rhiner’s face, the word was repeated with emphasis. “Absurd.”

Rhiner thought of Arkway’s satellite and smiled thinly. “With enough sandfall, that which is not forbidden becomes compulsory.”

Tavistock’s pudgy face contorted with perplexity. Then he bobbed his shaved head, feigning apprehension and removed an affin log from among the weighted oddments arrayed on his desk. “You follow your instincts where you will. But don’t go browbeating my crew. We’ve got enough on our plate without spurious accusations.”

“Didn’t intend to.”

He slid the log to the reclaimer. “I had Fenton compile everything we thought relevant about the matter. Including our schedule, in case you needed to speak with anyone. And, of course, if you have any further questions, feel free to ask.”

Rhiner took the log scanned it on his suit-bound receptor and handed it back, then got up and headed for the door.

“Oh, one more thing.” Rhiner paused. Turned. “Colonel Vancing informed me there would be two of you.”

Rhiner tilted his head, listening intently. An expression of subtle amusement crept into his face. He whipped open the door and revealed Sidra listening on the other side. She grinned sheepishly and seamlessly transitioned into a deferential bow. “An honor to meet you, Commander.”


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Mass Wasting: Chapter 10


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THE KESTREL FLIES

“You’re right. It has been tampered with,” Sidra declared as she unfurled herself from inspection of the autocus. The man-sized machine was low to the ground, with its long dexterious branches bent underneath its soft, pliable bulk, its lobsteresque feelers wriggling to and fro before its masters, awaiting instruction. “Poor fella,” she cooed, petting the contraption’s head. “Whoever messed with it added a hidden directive. Hence our recent troubles.” The moon crowned her like a decrepit halo, visible through the wide crew commons window.

“Can you determine the identity of the saboteur from the inputs?”

“No. But at least now we can have some peace of mind that nothing else will go haywire on us before we reach Castramare.”

Rhiner immediately incorporated the information into his report and sent it to Vancing. They buried themselves in their work but with every hour’s expiration, their anticipation and fatigue grew until they gave in to repose, but so charged were their minds that sleep eluded them.

Rhiner sat the lefthand commons couch near the window and watched remnants of dead stars ornament the ephemeral field of ruin. So much motion, and so little purpose. Kryos’ words echoed from the watery cavern of his memory. He sunk to a black reverie that did not pass beyond his partner’s notice.

“Something wrong?”

“I was just thinking how absurd it is.”

“What?”

“To sabotage an offworld facility. Nearly all existence is hostile to our own. An illimitable field of contestation. Yet,” He touched the fading wound at his brow. “Someone always wants your blood.”

She took a seat beside him on the couch, staring inquisitively at his face. “You sound like Kryos.”

“He said something similar when we met.”

She obtained a solemn expression, opened her mouth to reply, but decided against it. Both fell silent and watched the rubble of old satellites and upper-stages tumble beyond the viewport. Sleep overtook them and, shoulder to shoulder, they slumbered.

Rhiner woke to a muted beeping and found Sidra curled against him like a cat. He bent to his affin module and checked the caller identification. It was Vancing.

“Y’ello?” He answered quietly and hastened to throw in a “Sir.”

“Other than Kaneko, nineteen members of our staff were responsible for the certification of your autocus. I’ve kept this from everyone but Kryos and my investigators. We’re hopeful the culprit will be in our hands soon.”

“That’s good to hear. Have you analyzed the prompts from the repository?”

Vancing’s affable tone assumed a hard edge. “No. They weren’t in the report. That’s mainly why I called. Obviously, we need them for the investigation. Put Kaneko on. I want to speak to her about this.”

Rhiner looked to the woman’s placid, dreaming face and frowned. “Sir, I hope you don’t think its out of line for me to say-”

“That’s two sirs in a row. Are you drunk, Rhiner?”

“No, its just that she’s resting now, and, she’s had an awful shock. I’m not too proud to say I’m a little shaken myself. It must have slipped her mind. I’ll compile them and-”

“I understand. But its her duty. See to it she compiles them for me.”

“I will.”

“And Rhiner.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Good work.”

The transmission died and Rhiner returned his attention to the sleeping woman. She was smiling.

“Must be a good dream.”


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Mass Wasting: Chapter Nine


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KESTREL

The reclaimer woke on his back to Sidra staring down at him. “Have a good nap?”

“The console!” The man’s metal gray eyes flashed as he attempted to unfurl himself from the bed, but Sidra put her hands on his shoulders.

“Relax, samurai. I took care of it.” He did as bade and the foggy anxiety went out of his face and was replaced with the characteristic expression of dour, pertinacious remoteness. But in this instance a tinge of relief and appreciation lightened the morose aspect. Sidra drew back and looked away, bashful. “I can thank you for saving me properly now.”

Rhiner sat and looked around. He was in the bedroom, on his mat. The hideous teddy bear had resumed its previous position. “All I did was pass out.”

“Nonsense. Your idea to use the autocus is the only reason we’re alive. I was so focused on getting to the hub, so scared, the thought didn’t occur to me.” The mechanic fussed with her finespun hands, as if attempting to untangle some invisible skein. “It really was very stupid of me.”

He dismissed her self-reproach with a curt exclamation. Then queried. “Did you drag me here yourself?”

She chuckled. “No. You’re far too heavy. I had the autocus carry you.” He threw his legs over the side of the matting, and rolled the stiffness out of his joints. His antimonial eyes met the stuffed animal and he glanced to its owner. “Why do you keep that creepy thing?”

“Its adorable,” she replied, feigning deep offense.

“Macabre is the word I’d use.”

“Ha! Well I never.”

“How’d you come by it?”

Her normally bouyant voice tinged with solemnity. “It was a gift. From my sister.”

“You should see if you can nudge her tastes.”

“I might, if I could.”

“What do you mean?”

“She died, several years ago. Other than memories, that miniature is all I have left of her.” Rhiner was on the cusp of responding when the woman cleared her throat and changed the subject. “It was sabotage. I checked the console after I woke up. There were two hidden programs running from the capsule, one to maximize ring acceleration, one to maximize the thrusters. It seems that the ring program was meant to deploy first, but due to a prompt error, it ran second.”

“That’s cunning. Use the ring to stop us getting to the thrusters.”

“If the program had operated as intended, it’d be over.”

Rhiner stood up. “This clears a good deal. First, we know we’re dealing with at least two people, one at or near Castramare, and one embedded on the Arkhos.” Rhiner strode toward crew commons, Sidra close behind. “Second, the agent on the Arkhos is proficient with ship computers, but not a specialist. Is callous, hasty and an employee of Kryos Industries.”

“The first two are plain, but how did you get to our bird being an employee?”

“Because our bird, as you so colorfully put it, our kestrel, let’s say, had intimate access to the hangar and detailed knowledge of our ship’s departure. I’ll wager there were few aboard who knew of our mission. Is that not so?”

“Vancing would know who did.”

“Then we’ll ask him. And see if we can put a beak to our bird. So much for points one and two.”

Upon entering crew commons, Rhiner darted to the static console on the central table and spoke with enthusiasm as he typed a missive for Vancing. “Now, onto our third illumination, its probable there’s only one agent of this subversive fraternity aboard the Arkhos, one is all that’s required and greater numbers mean greater chance of discovery. The opposite rings true of Castramare, I suspect our foes there number no less than two. One in the base. One hidden near it, with means of transit to orbit.”

“I think you’ve sketched it right. What puzzles me is how this person could have gotten to the ship, rigged it, and slipped, without being detected.” She sat, brought knees to chest and frowned. “I hope it isn’t anyone I know.”

Rhiner grit his teeth and smote the tabletop prompting Sidra to wince. “Of course. That bastard.”

“What?”

“Not what. Who. Taureg.”

“That oaf who attacked you in the caravansary?”

“Yes. What a dullard I am. Why didn’t I think of it before? He’s always detested me. Can’t stand I make out better than him without a crew. Saw his chance to get rid of unwated competition, and took it.”

“Does he have the technical knowledge to pull something like this off? This system isn’t anything like those in the scuppers you reclaimers flit about in. No offense.”

“None taken. Its true I don’t have the knowledge to do it. I don’t know if he could. But even if he couldn’t, he has a systems engineer named Fitzroy, who might.” The reclaimer removed a can of the salted caramel coffee and poured it to a cup as he spoke, and returned to composing his missive for Vancing.

“Hold on. You’re not thinking about what I said.” He stopped typing. “When would they have been able to do it? All our ships are in a different hangar than the one we let to the public. You were only allowed in because the boss lent you the Raumhake, anyone unapproved, even reclaimers, trying to get into our private shipyard would be barred. Its constantly occupied and remotely monitored, all cargo is checked, coming and going. There’s no way they could have snuck in. Certainly, they couldn’t have bribed their way through. All Taureg’s men couldn’t muster the price of one module of the Arkhos.”

“Fine points.” He rubbed his face. The exhaustion wrought by the emulation trials and capsule fiasco lay as a leaden cloak about his body. He let fall a supplement cube to his drink and watched it soak in dark liquid, going very still. A surge of intensity overtook his blanched, brooding features. He spoke with considerable emotion. “We have put a wrong foot on the right track.”

She scrunched her face in an attempt to catch his meaning. He plucked the cube from the drink and turned it in his fingers as her eyes drifted to it, then dropped it back into the murky fluid. “We are right that our kestrel was among us. We were wrong in supposing this person got into our ship. For we know-”

“He’s a programmer,” she finished excitedly, her eyes to the coffee soused block, realizing the implications of his demonstration. “So why not reprogram something to effect the changes to our system, something that would be expected on the voyage?”

“Something no one would think to check.”

Slowly, and with some apprehension, the pair turned to the autocus at its duty in the corner.


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Mass Wasting: Chapter Eight


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SECOND SABOTAGE

The Raumhake shuddered fitfully as Sidra and Rhiner traversed the long blue-white hooped hall, toward the lone toiling autocus, its long stalk-limbs dilligently checking the temperature control system via a paneled wall outlet. The twosome sprinted past the intelligent machine toward the main console housed in the command hub opposite crew commons along the ring’s circumference. Complete control of the ship’s operations could be accessed by no other point, save the cabin, which lay a further distance. A dire thought beat both brains. If the drive maximization protocol running through the altered capsule wasn’t stopped, the thrusters would eventually overheat. Neither knew the extent of the damage that had or might be done, but both recognized the process’ continuance would, at the least, destroy their motive power and leave them adrift as a mastless galleon. At the worst, the ship would be their tomb.

Before the runners could reach the mark, their movements slowed. Breath came hard and sinew stung.

“The ring,” Sidra shouted from her position far ahead of her confederate. “Its accelerating.”

Rhiner was already aware of as much. “Can you reach it?”

Her left leg buckled. “I can’t. Its too much.”

“We must try.”

Straining against mounting centrifugal force, Sidra collapsed twenty feet from the console enclosure. Moments later, Rhiner fell to a knee, his body having nearly doubled in weight, and thereafter lost all strength and was pinned to the floor like an entomologist’s butterfly. At that moment his mind was lanced with terror, for he knew they would soon be rendered unconscious by the structure’s quickening. And if it continued to quicken…

For Rhiner, dying on an exotic world in the course of duty was unfortunate, but being slain by one’s own ship was abominable. He wouldn’t allow it. It was matter of pride, but more than that. The Raumhake‘s halo was designed, not merely to sustain, but to nourish occupants for indefinate offworld forays. To afford all the advantages of their planet’s field, and more besides. To invert the purpose of a device against its operators, the apotheosis of lives beyond tabulation, was, to Rhiner, unspeakably profane. An outrage against the legacy of his trade and all others upon which it relied. A cruel theft of unborn potentialities.

“The autocus,” was all he could manage against the pressure.

Sidra roused to hope and struggled to raise right arm to left, and, with the last of her might, issued a series of commands to the automaton through the affin module prompt embedded in her gauntlet. Seconds later, she slumped and lay still.

“Did you get it? Sid!”

But no answer came.

And Rhiner too, buckled and fell into the black.


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Mass Wasting: Chapter Seven


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DINRAVELING

Sidra leaned from archival data screened on crew commons affin module, countenance weary, dramaturgic vesture askew. Portable music player thrumming. She huffed, messed straight, sooty tresses, swiveled upon her chair, knocking knees, and clicked her tongue. Impatience in every gesture.

Rhiner entered the room, bearing two stacked trays of food, each bearing a spherical roll of bread. He slid her a platter, then sat, one seat adjacent the woman, and switched off the music player, earning a scowl. She poked the bread roll and found it pliable.

“What is this?”

“Bread. My recipe. You can’t get this kind of consistency planetside.”

As she bite into the roll and closed her eyes in delight, he added, “Sent word to the Colonel about the satellite.”

She threw a thumbs up to him, her movements less energetic than usual.

“So?” He shook a sealed, self-heating container of salted caramel coffee. “What’d you find?”

“Not much. Records don’t go back very far,” she remarked, gesturing with the baked good. “Because of Markov.” The man nodded. It was a well known conundrum for researchers. Aerospace operations were epochally effected by the former Aecer Consortium’s Markov Plan, a labyrinthine set of policies, pushed by the late Chancellor Richter, intended to bring all industralized nations under one cohesive governance framework. Only a handful of foreign countries agreed, most citing the then-prospective Plan’s instantiation of mandatory immigration quotas, multi-domain disarmament and energy sector reduction, as too crippling to sustain, if not outright mad. Little commentary was offered on The Plan’s prohibitions concerning space development, as Aecer was then the uncontested aerospace capitol of the world. The Plan outlawed construction and deployment of all satellites without Consortium approval, and prohibited offworld colonization in totality. Spacecrafts were to be converted into global buses for international transport. Numerous satellite arrays, spaceports, tourist shuttles and asteroid mining ventures were then already in operation. However, due hinderance of orbital debris removal and proper infrastructural maintenance, all such ventures were shuttered, even those Plan-governments desired active. Prohibition’s accidental collapse of the spacing industry, and the destruction of Aecer’s old government during the Rehdon Revolt, left the Markov Plan nullified, corporate and government archives eviscerated, and a commercial vacuum to be filled. Of information and orbital dross. So entered the first reclaimers, to recover utile floatsam.

“Only one member of the crew has history with Soligrange.”

“Who?” He dropped one of his protein cubes into the steaming caramel-scented container, taking in the vapor with lidded eyes.

“The geologist. Fenton. Used to consult for them. Guess Arkway made a better offer.”

“Interesting. And the tourists?”

“Jaqi Stalmyre’s brother,” she replied between mouthfuls of food. “Ulrich Bower-”

“Bower?”

“Took his wife’s last name.”

Rhiner nearly choked on his kelp wafer.

She was offended but tried to play it off. “I think its cute.”

“Not the word I’d use.” She glowered. He swallowed his food, gestured nonchalantly. “You were saying.”

“I was saying that he, that is Ulrich, is a systems architect at Soligrange.”

“What’s his profile?”

“Staid. Professional. Boring.” She flung her feet onto the tabletop, prompting a disgusted stare from Rhiner. “No criminal history. Never worked for Arkway. How’d your inquiry pan out, samurai?”

“Illuminating.” He froze, distracted by a glob of gelatin running down the right corner of the woman’s mouth and offered her a napkin. She refused and ran her tongue out along the corner of her mouth like a toad on a fly hunt. “Are you trying to make me lose my appetite?”

“Can you pull it out?”

“What?”

“The stick lodged up your a-”

“As I was saying, turns out Fenton’s lab receives funding from the Eastern Federation.”

She shrugged. “EFs been partnering with Aecer-backed labs for decades.”

“Didn’t say it was conclusive. Said it was illuminating.”

“Didn’t say you said it was conclusive.”

“You implied it.”

“You a mind reader?”

Rhiner pushed his tray back and stood up.

“Where’re you going?”

“To a more pleasurable field of contemplation.”

He left before she had a chance to swallow the food she was chewing. He shook slightly as he walked, as if dispensing rainstorm residuum. Too many words. Too little sharpness. He wanted to move. To sweat. To burn. Not be carried away by effete academic exercise. Time wasted theorizing possible culprits when he wasn’t even sure there was a culprit. Not enough topological memorization and tract traversal. Maximal preparation for surface exploration was essential to mission success, and, more importantly, survival. He had run ground simulations, as he had done in anticipation of piloting the Raumhake, but there was no substitution for the uncalculable dangers in store. There were always unknown variables, and when they descended, dark wings spread, talons outstretched, quick thinking and reflexes to match, not meandering speculative digressions, would be the only barrier between continuance and annihilation.

He retired to the training room, a great sphere suspended in the center of the ship’s gravity ring. The space was larger even than crew commons and could be freely modulated to achieve accelerational equivalents from neigh vaccum to near fatal. One half of the sphere was blue, the other white, and through the center of it an orange line wrapped from pole to pole. He walked around the sphere until his food had digested and broke into a jog.

After twenty minutes of running in circles he put on his custom tailored pressurized suit, lowered the gravity to moon ambient, and initiated an affin module program for terrain emulation titled scapecrafter. A wide incongrous closed loop band of hardy black ferrofluid material emerged from the floor, orthogonal to orange line, beginning at the point where Rhiner stood. From the ceiling, a large bastion wire declined, an enormous, compacted multilayered mesh strung on soft folding arms that followed parallel to the reclaimer’s path. A failsafe, set to activate at the push of a button. He looked to the screen of his affin module, it read: System Status: Linked_P_1_W_Rhiner. Mode: Nonconvergent, Tracking (Default). Net: Inactive (Default). And below the details, three option trees: Activate (Convergent Tracking_P_1_W_Rhiner). Change mode (Nonconvergent Tracking<>Convergent Tracking<>Static). System Shutdown.

He observed the countours of the grand lunar-copied circlet and took a few hops forward, to the point at which the artificial slope rose most gently, easing himself into the motions necessary for maximal speed under lunar gravity. It was a method of transit familiar to him, given his extensive history running ringless ships, but the terrain differential was a novel factor. To get used to swift movement at less than half one’s planet’s gravity on a flat, stable surface, and to do the same, but on a prominenced, unstable surface, were of comperable difference to running along the bottom of a swimming pool and the bottom of the sea. Once he adjusted to movement in lessened weight, he climbed a smooth rise that he fancied was the system’s replication of a crater rim, and looked out over the steep declivity on the other side. He inhaled, closed his eyes, opened them, and leapt from the cliff. As well-shod feet heeled caliginous synthetic sod, he arched his back and flung left arm rearward to steady himself, a fan of odd-angled blades springing from his gauntlet and biting alluvium. He alternated between brand-bearing arms with steady rhythm, leaving a striated, serpentine wake along the wasted inky gradient.

The door buzzed, flew open. Noise led distraction, both subverted Rhiner’s poise. With a gasp, he lost all balance and went tumbling down the silty decline. Too close to the bottom to activate suit thrusters, too far to survive unmediated impact. A frantic punch to his affin module “Activate” switch brought the bastion wire beneath him and secured the tumbler from injury. He lay still upon the absorbent meshing, caught breath and turned to the amused interloper.

Sidra craned her head to the man above, nestled on the opposite side of the arena. “Nice technique. Arm blades, that’s clever. Wonder why we never thought of that. But you’ve gotta focus better. If I call you while you’re out in the field, am I going to find you plastered over the bottom of a fossa?”

He dangled in a safety net and she was right. Rhiner was doubly embarrassed. “What do you want?”

Sidra’s face creased with annoyance. “Wanted to train. So I’m in the training room.”

He remained silent despite his choler, and together they practiced lunar traversal on scapecrafter imitations, beginning with flatish plains and gently sloping craters, working their way up through increasingly rugged terrain.

The hardest piece the crafter produced was a mountainous composite, a great mesa, surrounded by a series of looming, brittle crags, like ancient menhirs, of ascending height, that collapsed almost as soon as either of the duo stepped upon them, and formed the only path up the sheer obsidian rise. Sidra stopped and gazed up at the dark excrescence, then shot forward with a burst of energy. “Second to the top has to sweep the commons.”

“Its too steep. Wait.” But she did not wait and he bounded after her, but found himself disadvantaged, and the more sluggish, by his greater bulk. He ceaselessly flung forward from one jagged, crumbling plinth to the next, moving ever higher. When he caught back up with Sidra, she stuck out her tongue and zipped with acrobatic incision across a particularly perilous portion of the decaying doric stair. At the sight of her posturing, bottled rancor spilled over. “Vulgar sow. This is no time to show off. That portion is too unstable. Its all too high, we should end the simulation.”

“Scared, samurai?”

“You’re gonna get yourself killed.”

She smirked and opened her mouth. Further retort was cut off by the slender plinth on which she stood shearing away and taking her with it in a blur of struggling sound and soma. Rhiner’s mind raced. He hadn’t seen her link into the system. If she hadn’t synchronized with the crafter bastion net, she could be badly injured, or worse.

“Sid!” He shouted and leapt after her, plunging to a cavity ariled with tall struts of stone, thicker than those above. She was several feet distant, tumbling slowly through the air. Rhiner extended his hands. Couldn’t reach her. She crashed into a sedimentary jut, some hundred feet off the callous, ejecta showered ground, smashing its crown to pieces, cried out and spun leftward out of Rhiner’s trajectory. He drifted past her, toward a great slanted beam of rock and loosed his gauntlet-bound alluvial blades to the surface of the bare pitch. Vanes dug in and afforded sufficient drag to dramatically slow his declension. He kicked free of the angled cliff and dove toward Sidra, naught but fifty feet from the ground, catching her at the last and turned his body beneath her, such that even should the net fail there would be something to break her fall. Thereafter the bastion wire caught them and they lay atop the other for a moment in silence. Sidra laughed, fell off the man onto her back, and continued with such boisterousness that the whole net shook. Rhiner looked to her, confused, quizzical. She raised her right arm to him and on the screen of her affin module he could see that she had synched with the net and was on the cusp of activating it when he intervened.

“I thought you would die.”

“You were worried about me.”

“Its not funny.”

“Oh, my gallant samurai.” She placed her hands on his breastplate and her expression assumed the purportions of seriousness. Rhiner looked on in perplexity. “Thanks, for saving me.” The next instant a sly smile slid up the side of her mouth. “From the terrors of your mind.”

Rhiner’s countenance clouded. He leapt off the net. The extent of his exhaustion set in as he stood. Limbs felt weighted with stone. The hot, heavy press of Rhiner’s suit, the interior of which was caked with slow wicking sweat, further compelled him to retire.

“Done already? Hey. Hello,” Sidra called out with mounting frustration. He withdrew from the training chamber without answering the woman, disrobing as he went, and ducked into the adjacent washroom, a small, smooth monochrome hollow, bisected by a retractabled opaque screen, and at the end of it, on either side of the divide, two floor-to-ceiling shower capsules. He drew the screen, stripped nude, took the left capsule and tried the handle. It wouldn’t budge. He fussed with the control panel to no avail and muttered an oath. The shower was broken. Rhiner let his head knock against the unresponsive pericarp. Before he could muster the energy to straighten and move to the other pod, Sidra entered, silhouetted by the partition. Again he cursed.

“Something wrong?” She asked, slipping out of her bodysuit.

“Capsule isn’t working. Cover won’t open.”

“Then you’ll have to shower with me.”

She was right. Water use had to be rationed, to provide time for the recycler to process the supply for reuse. The ship’s computer judiciously monitored all water consumption, and errant dispensation could prompt his employer to take it out of his pay. His own ship was stocked with anti-bacterial wipes, but he’d brought none and scolded himself for such an omission. Prior to the proliferation of gravity rings, every spacefaring vehicle had them, as microgravity precluded more common lavations, but as gravity modulation became commonplace, such items ceased to be widely carried, save in small amounts for medical care. Those he would not expend, save upon a sufficiently grievous injury.

Rhiner threw a towl about his waist. He felt blind as a beetle for not thinking of it before. “First, come take a look at this.”

“Say pretty please.”

“You’re my tech support. Support.”

“Gotta say it.”

With considerable chagrin, he uttered a tepid, “Pretty please.”

Sidra wrapped a towel about her midsection, opened the screen and set to investigating the capsule’s operating panel. After around two minutes she shook her head and looked to her partner with exasperation and machine-gunned her diagnosis. “Problem is the repository for the capsule being outsourced to the thruster system. You know, you really shouldn’t modify it like this.”

Rhiner’s eyes went wide.

“I didn’t.”

Her words poured out unsteady with horror.

“Then who did?”


next chapter


Mass Wasting: Chapter Six


previous chapter


ENIGMA’S THREAD


Rhiner sat, ambered hued, in crew commons, the largest room within the Raumhake‘s gravity ring, pastel colored and concentric of composition. A series of blanched couches with detatchable backs occupied the outer perimeter of the room, and at the center, a collapsable table and four chairs in clamshell gloss. He enjoyed the still spareness and garish symmetricality of it. Arrangements of enshelled carbon and plastic, like baroque ink on wide spaced cream paper. Clean mechanical geometry eased the frantic permutations of his mind by heightened recognition of conceptual concretizations, finesed over centuries. Every contour, the culmination of bloodlines beyond counting. Thus bastioned, the reclaimer threw himself into a study of his notebook as millions of distant stars tilted in fathomless ambit beyond the broad module’s gently bowed floor to ceiling window. After several minutes he gave up perusal of the tome and turned his mind toward the burgeoning dossier of Castramare personnel. He assessed the portraits Vancing had provided one by one and flicked the end of his pencil down to the biographical annotations of every visage. Most likely culprit, given present information, was the roboticist Coralis, who had, among her team, superior understanding of, and access to, the Trimaran. Yet a detail snagged theorum’s fabric. How could Coralis have surreptitously knocked the satellite out of orbit? It was clear from the public information concerning the satellite and the Castramare mission that she had nothing to do with the orbital observation platform. None of the crew members had control over it, and so couldn’t have remotely prompted it out of its designated configuration around the moon. The satellite was solely operated by researchers at the Aecer Instutute of Aeronautics, who liasoned with Arkway for pertinent instruction. Clearly, Coralis didn’t deorbit the object manually. It didn’t make sense unless she had a confederate. If there was an accomplice or accomplices, how could Coralis have communicated with such a person, or persons, without the communiques being discovered by her peers, who all lived in necessarily close proximity? Castramare was composed of a single block installed within a cliffside, divided into use-specific chambers. Privacy was impossible. He remembered Vancing’s words about faces in the moon, threw the papers down and rubbed the bridge of his nose. It didn’t add up. He soaked in the delightful quietude and relaxed until the chamber door flew open and the sound of footfalls broke upon his reverie.

Sidra entered, wearing caravansary stage garb, posing in a theatrical manner, legs bent, back arched, feet turned out, one hand thrust forth, palm facing pane. “Yoh-oh. Reclaimer’s pen slices enigma’s thread, as ronin’s blade takes enemy’s head.”

He arched a brow. “Its a pencil.”

She angled her head, took a step forward and threw her other hand out. “Yoh-oh. He spares scant glance to distraction’s face, in thoughtful pose, an unseen race.”

The man rolled pencil to journal’s spine, snapped the book shut, and shifted his gaze to the performer with irritation. “I’m trying to concentrate.”

The woman frowned, let arms fall to sides and strode to the window. In silence, she caressed the translucent material, as if to draw words from it. “You going to be like this the entire way?”

“Are you?”

“You don’t like me, do you?”

“Irrelevant to the mission.”

“I can’t help you theorize if you’re always sealing yourself away in a different module.”

Pleading blue eyes prompted reclaimer’s contrition. “That doesn’t have anything to do with you. I like being alone.”

“That why you became a reclaimer?”

“Yeah. Helps me think. Pull up a chair.”

Sidra sat across from the man. “The first thing we should do is go over the basics.”

Rhiner considered the proposal and ascented. “Good idea. Help us from getting too narrow too quick.”

“Right. Well. The Trimaran’s autonomous, so its disappearence could have been caused by malfunction. But Arkway’s observation satellite wasn’t automated. For it to have been brought out of orbit with such velocity, all of its thrusters would need to have fired, in precise alignment, at the same time.”

“Which is extremely unlikely to happen by accident.”

“Yeah. That alone would be suspicious, but with the drone vanishing at the same time, we can say there’s high probability of this being the work of some agent or agents, not an accident.”

The reclaimer dipped his head in agreement. “So the next question is: Who benefits from Castramare’s cessation?”

“Soligrange.”

“Arkway’s main competitor, the real estate development firm.”

“Right. Vancing didn’t mention them when I raised the possibility of sabotage because he didn’t want to prejudice our thinking, but the thought had to have crossed his mind.”

“Why?”

“They’re even more well known than Arkway, or at least they were until the establishment of Castramare. When two groups want the same piece of land and something bad happens to the first group there, its near certain the ones responsible are the late group.”

“It is not impossible. But near certain isn’t good enough. Our hypotheses differ.”

She pouted and leaned forward, hands on her cheeks, like a child annoyed at the postponement of a fairytale’s climax. “Oh? What’s yours?”

“You said Soligrange has the larger public presence. They plan to launch a lunar base next year. Right?”

“Yeah. What’s your point, samurai?”

He spun the pencil around his knuckles in a full rotation. “Point is, as things stand, your suspicion would be adopted by the public once word of this gets out, Soligrange would know that. Few companies get big as them by disregarding public relations. The very fact it is widely known they would benefit greatly from Arkway’s misfortune, suggests their innocence.”

“Or stupidity.”

“Would you describe jettisoning a data-mining orbiter and concealing a nigh-sentient automaton at the same time the work of fools?”

She drew her lips to one side, as if she had been exposed to a new, exotic, mildly rebarbative flavor. “No. But its not a binary between innocence and stupidity. Maybe their leadership becamse so accustomed to undermining their rivals, subversive practice became compulsive. Happens all the time with drinking, gambling, sex. Doesn’t matter how smart an alcoholic is, he’s gonna drink. Besides, I don’t know of any other companies with an interest in lunar colonization who have the means to accomplish it.”

“The bit about compulsion is true, but it might not be a company. Might not even have anything to do with land development. Could be that someone on the base had a grudge against Arkway, or against the leadership there. Could be the meddling of a government that wants to cripple Aecer’s space capabilities.”

“Hm. Arkway is the lynchpin in Aecer’s aerospace program. You could be right. I could dig into whether or not any of the crewmembers had any affiliation with Soligrange.”

“That would be most helpful.” Rhiner rubbed his hands with excitement. “We have a plan of action.”

Sidra smiled broadly and assumed her previous pose. “Yo-oh. Samurai and songstress meet, for dire action soon to greet.” The woman’s poem was cut short by a pencil striking her forehead.


next chapter

Mass Wasting: Chapter Five


previous chapter


DIREDROSS

Hours passed and the monotonous black field summoned hypnotic drowsiness upon the Raumhake pilots. Sidra nodded off and Rhiner gently prodded her shoulder. “We’ll be outside the local debris field in three hours. Til then, I need your eyes peeled.” She offered a groggy mock salute, straightened in her seat, and set to a reappraisal of the sensors.

Given the ship’s size and plating quality, hull penetration from any object within the catalogued local debris cluster was improbable. Despite this, Rhiner didn’t want to return a scuffed ship, as there was no guarentee it would be his own when he returned. They could fly around the field, but doing so would mean bucking Arkway’s timetable. Maintaining schedule and safekeeping company property were the top priorities of a reclaimer. Rhiner had only broken both cardinal rules at the same time once, on his last engagement, and knew business prospects would slim considerably if he were to repeat the mistake. Eidos Kryos might not mind, but Rhiner wasn’t keen to wager future business prospects on any other company heads sharing the veiled industrialist’s eccentricities.

Sidra tensed up, her hands white knuckling the sensor array.

“Something’s coming our way fast. Something big. Approximately one hundred meters in diameter.”

“What?” Rhiner jolted up in his seat and snapped to the window. He couldn’t see anything but faint glimmering particulates of the cast-off corridor, excretion of his homeworld’s congealing extraplanetary mantle.

“Its moving in elliptical orbit around the planet. Straight at us. It’ll tear us apart.”

“Time until impact?” He inquired softly.

“Four minutes.” Her breath uneven, eyes wide, muscles jittery.

“There shouldn’t be any objects that large in the field.”

“Well there is. Why are we holding course?”

“Its a tight corridor. We veer off in any direction now, we’ll get peppered. Why didn’t we pick it up sooner?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it was cloaked. We don’t have time to wait until we’re outside of the corridor.”

He looked at the computer analysis of the foreign object’s trajectory and did a series of mental calculations. “We’ll have thirty seconds.”

“Are you insane?”

“Steady. Focus.”

She leaned toward him, intense, pleading, erratic. “I’m focused on our impending death. The plating can take it.”

“No guarentee of that.”

“We’re guarenteed dead if we don’t move!”

“Lower the arms.”

“What?”

“The arms. Or this thing, whatever it is will skim them off when we pass.”

She did as he commanded and lowered the lion-fish-like protrusions flush to the vessel’s exterior. Both stared out the window and discerned, amid the blackness, a fast closing form. Their mysterious adversary, peeling out of the metal-flecked wastes. “Rhiner. Do it now.”

“The heck is that?” He peered closely into the stygian chasm and discerned, on the encroaching object, a view-port not dissimilar to his own.

“Rhiner!”

He wait several seconds, eyes to the sensor array, to ensure they had passed the debris field, clutched the controls and brought the ship low, banking beneath the path of the careening hunk. The ominous dull glistening mass flashed over the Raumhake without perturbation and vanished into shadow. Rhiner stabilized the vessel and for several seconds the pair sat panting and blinking in wordless shock. Only the ambient hum of the craft perturbed the residue of their exertions.

Rhiner eased back in his seat and cracked his knuckles. “Told you we had enough time.”

Sidra scowled. “Lunatic. We. Could. Have. Died.” The woman thrashed his shoulder with every high-pitched word. Rhiner took the blows without qualm and stuck a cigarette between his lips.

“You done?”

Sidra’s expression softened as she noticed his hands were still quaking, same as her own.

“You get a look at it?”

“Yeah.” He shifted to her with a grave expression, his tone somber. “Seems we found Arkway’s missing satellite.”


next chapter

Mass Wasting: Chapter Four


previous chapter


RAUMHAKE

The Raumhake lay in the Arkhos docking bay like a bulky stick insect bearing a pinwheel in its core. The fore of the vessel narrowed lance sharp, the midsection bearing a rotation ring, now stationary, to maintain planet comperable gravity in-flight, the hindquarters tapered similar to the fore, but longer. A ceiling borne crane-arm held the interplanetary vehicle aloft and eight protruding reticulated folding arms kept it steady against the wide gray floor of the palatial hangar. Beneath the dark archanidic ship, a latch retracted, revealing a portal and a steep granulated walkway leading to it.

Rhiner paced up the lowered boarding strip, stood at the threshold of the overhead entrance and ran a hand across the craft’s matte-black underbelly. Above his palm, the product of hundreds of tons of materials, decades of research and millions of years of evolution.

He uttered one word with subdued passion. “Beautiful.”

“Aw, sweet of you to say,” a familiar female voice cooed.

The verbal intrusion startled the man so much he nearly dropped his pack and tumbled from the telesopic gangplank. Keen reflexes the only savior from declivity. He looked up, through the personnel port once more, and beheld the vivacious singer from the caravansary, leaning against a crate like a lynx, staring down at him with amusement, her provocative outfit exchanged for the standard-issue obsidian bodysuit of Kryos Industries, shoulder length tresses pulled taunt from face by a supple lavender coil.

Rhiner grimaced. “I was referring to the ship.”

“Oh.” She pursed her lips, hurt, pretending otherwise. “Didn’t mean to startle you. Got antsy waiting.” She knelt and extended a small gloved hand.

He took her proffered limb and she helped him through the portal, waited for the automated gangplank to withdraw, secured the hatch and beamed. “I’ve never been selected for a mission off base before.”

“Great,” he muttered dourly.

“What?”

“Nothing. You ready? I wanna get started soon as possible.”

She gave him a theatrical thumbs-up and winked. The man stared opaquely at the woman a moment before taking in his surroundings.

The boarding chamber was higher ceilinged than needed for crew-members to afford space for cargo. The insulated walls were fitted with large claw racks that held a number of crates of varying sizes, and moved them, horizontally, vertically, until they were fit flush together, like a self-solving clockwork puzzle. Further along, near the chamber exit, a number of chutes, through which varigated equipment was ushered by articulate, track-bound mechanical limbs, to be deposited in use appropriate modules.

He adjusted his pack and moved from the boarding chamber to the main hall, an expansive corridor that ran in a circle and encompassed all habitation zones, and headed for the living quarters. He knew the general layout of the craft from ship-plans Vancing had given him and had sketched a simplified version in his notebook.

Upon arriving in the living quarters he sighed, for there was one bedroom, and two beds, scarcely a body’s length apart. On the left bed rested a lavender throwover and a pink stuffed bear. Rhiner felt its black button eyes mocking him. He unshouldered his pack, sat the mattress, ran hands through dark, hastily cropped hair, looked at the bear and turned it so it gazed at the pillow.

He left his personal goods, save journal, pencil and cigarettes, in the bedroom and strode along the tubular shale-colored ambit of the main hall, ceiling colored lighter than floor, for ease of orientation in microgravity, to the dense pilot cabin.

The cabin was cone-shaped, with two adjustable chairs stalked to the ceiling, bifurcated by a slender storage and control panel, before all of which spanned a sloped window, sealed by a heat visor. Sidra was waiting, chewing gum in the rightward chair. Music blared from speakers. Sable head dipped to rhythm. She shimmied, snapped and murmured lyrics.

Rhiner watched the display with vexation, sat with serious countenance, strapped in and turned to his co-pilot.

“Set?”

“As a standing stone.”

“Release restrainsts. Ready visor retraction.”

The woman manipulated the surrounding control array with practiced suriety and the vessel shook as the engine spun to life, thereafter the machine’s eight arms retracted and flattened, fin-like, against the exterior, leaving the vessel secured only by the hangar crane. “Control, we’re clear for takeoff,” Rhiner declared into the coms. Thereafter Sidra slid the visor away, allowing the duo a view of the opened bay exit and the yawning aphotic skein beyond. The crane slung them along and detatched as they picked up speed. Rhiner powered up the baseline thrusters and shot beyond the Arkhos into the star-speckled void. Sidra gave an excited shout as the vehicle succumbed to weightlessness. Rhiner remained focused on ship controls, annoyed by the aural distractions of sound-system and tongue. “Could you not do that?” The woman pouted as Vancing’s voice crackled across the coms. “Status?” Rhiner’s hand flew to the audio dial and squelched the music.

“Clear and away, Colonel.”

“Seems those simulations paid off.”

“Yes, Sir. Flies like a bird.”

“How’s our songstress?”

“Snug as a bug, Colonel.” Vancing cleared his throat. Rhiner thought back to their conversation in the lounge. She pondered a beat, then added, “Tell Kopf to work on his bassline while I’m away.”

“Will do. Keep me posted.”

The coms went silent and Rhiner banked hard right and set course for the moon. After several minutes Sidra exhaled and turned from the window.

“Seeing the galaxy outside atmospheric distortion never gets old. But I don’t like to look at it long.”

“Why?”

“Makes me feel small, insignificant. Don’t you feel the same, looking into the vastness? All those dead centuries, staring back at us.”

Rhiner grimaced as one insulted, tone brusque. “When I look to the void, I’m reminded of the rarity of significance. All that shimmering matter and not an inch of it we know of can think. Other than that formed on our sphere. Our ancestors felt insignificant in the face of the ocean, until they crossed it.” He was silent a moment, and took in her pert, pondering visage, then added, “People like to feel insignificant. Less dislocation. Less responsibility. Easier to imagine one is part of some cosmic plan. At one with creation. Indeliably part of something greater than oneself. Or some other kind of,” he waved his right hand as if spreading dust. “Mysticism.”

“You major in philosophy?”

“I didn’t major in anything.”

“You didn’t go to school?”

“Hard for me to think of a bigger waste of time.”

“Hard for you to think of a bigger waste of time, or just hard for you to think?”

Rhiner brushed off the jab and pulled out the carton of smokes. “Why listen to someone tell me things I ought to do when I could just do it? Want one?”

The woman nodded. Rhiner removed one of the white cylinders and flicked it through the air towards the woman. The filtered albescent tube rotated in languid arcs as Sidra bobbed up to take it in her teeth, but overshot her mark and prompted the flotsam to bump against her nose and spin out around her head like her own satellite. She laughed and, for the first time since they’d met, the man smiled.


next chapter

Mass Wasting: Chapter Three


previous chapter


A DIGRESSION ON THE SITUATION AT CASTRAMARE

“I’m Sidra. Kaneko Sidra.” Rhiner looked the scantly-clad singer up and down, hesitated, took her small, soft hand and shook in a polite, mechanical fashion. “Wilhelm Rhiner.” He made as much room for her as able in the short caravansary lounge booth. She pressed against him, thigh to thigh, and smiled as if they were old friends. Excitement evident in the scant lines of her round, polished face as disgust was in his own angular, rough one. Her smile faltered. His glower did not.

Vancing leaned over the artful swirl-patterned carbon-composite table, toward the fresh-bound pair, his voice casual as his eyes were intense. “The situation is this, Arkway has been assessing lunar properties for future development out of Castramare base.” He set a series of images on the table, the first detailing the aforementioned settlement, taken from low orbit. The second, another graphic of the outpost, imaged from the surface. “They’ve been using a new autonomous surveyance drone, designation: Trimaran. Capable of multi-terrain traversal. Sophisticated. Self-repairing. Very, very expensive.” The Colonel slid an image of the seleneic machine to the reclaimer, whose pencil swiftly skittered. The blue-white drone was compact and flexile, with six jointed limbs capable of folding into a cube configuration, each equipped with roller-tracks and delicate pincers. “Problem is, as you know, the drone’s gone missing. And so has their satellite. No clue as to why.”

“No eyes in orbit to find their missing pair on the ground,” Rhiner remarked flatly, taking notes, pausing to discern a distant feminine figure seemingly creeping toward his table, bearing something around the size of a football in her arms. Rhiner refocused to his superior. “You got eyes on it?”

“Not steady ones, no. Arkway wouldn’t take kindly to it if they found out we were monitoring their properties, regardless of our intentions. But Ms. Kaneko passed it with one of our drones during a recent debris removal operation, just prior to the disturbance.”

“There was nothing out of the ordinary,” she noted, twirling her hair absent-mindedly.

Rhiner gaze flit from her back to Vancing. “Even still, I’d like to see the recording. Absence is often as instructive as appearance.”

The woman arched a brow. Vancing shrugged. “Fine by me. Ms. Sidra can have it sent to the ship archives, but I think you’ll find talking to Arkway’s people more useful. Before you do that, however, I want you to try repairing the satellite. They’ll be more receptive to you if you do.”

“Sure. Shouldn’t be hard. They know we’re coming?”

Vancing nodded. “They’ve an estimate. You know how it is with the debris field.”

“Why do they only have one drone?” Sidra interjected, tearing her gaze away from her new partner’s notebook.

“Cost. Mr. Kryos’ secretary gave your new partner the schematics for the machine. I’m sure you’d agree, if you look at them, that it would stretch even Arkway’s budget rather thin to mass produce them.”

Rhiner cut in, annoyed, impatient. “Current personnel?”

“Arkway’s team is four in number, with two tourists, so base personnel is six total. Elmr Tavistock is the leader of the place, former SecCom officer, good reputation.”

“What sort of man is he?”

“Gregarious, forbearing, steady. He’ll be the one giving you a tour. They’ve also got an engineer, Robert Luders, talented, not well liked. A roboticist, Shelly Coralis, appearently an eccentric, responsible for Trimaran maintenance. And a geologist, Percival Fenton, about whom I know little, other than that he is highly regarded within the academic syndicate. No one understands the particularities of the region better.”

Rhiner looked up from his quire in which short biographies and an annotated half-finished sketch of the Trimaran had been made. “And the tourists?”

“Mia Rowson, no profession, daughter of Jerik Rowson, who sits on Arkway’s board of directors, and Jaqi Stalmyre, friend of the Rowsons, from an affluent family in the So-Rep. I hear she’s something of an adventuress.”

“They there as a family favor?”

“PR stunt. Arkway is keen on showing the safety of their habitats. If Rowson would send his own daughter to Castramare, why wouldn’t you?”

“That why they shopped the job out?”

“Yes. So keep your coms secure. The less that know of this, the better.”

“Do you think I’m angling for a flashy chyron and a whistleblower sit-down?”

“Doesn’t matter what I think. Ms. Sidra will make sure you behave yourself.”

Sidra flashed a broad smile. Rhiner worked his jaw and drew heavier strokes in vexation.

“You think it could be corporate sabotage?” Sidra queried after several seconds of grinding graphite.

Vancing held up his hands. “I’m only telling you what I know. Keep hypothesizing to a minimum until you get there. Just because you see a face in the moon doesn’t mean a man is there.”

“Every successful venture is erected atop a grave of preconceptions.”

Sidra tilted her head to the speaker. “Is that a reclaimer motto?”

“Its my motto.”

“Well. I think that’ll be all. Do you have any more questions? I-”

Before Vancing could finish his sentence, an isopod was lowered onto his head in tandem with a merry “boop” uttered by a woman that had appeared behind him, with bloodless skin, wine-black hair, and heterochromatic eyes, one green, one blue. Rhiner recognized her as the backup singer that had performed with Sidra and the knulutist. Vancing crinkled his brow and looked up at the wriggling lilac-hued creature. “I’m in the middle of something, Tatter.” The strange-eyed woman smiled. Sidra laughed.

Rhiner ignored the disruption, his flinty gaze set to the images of the satellite and drone splayed on the tabletop before him. Jaw tight. Posture bent and rigid. Pencil shifted about left proximal phalanges with the dexterity of a seasoned magician. There was nothing unusual about mechanical failure and asset loss, especially offworld, as much was to be expected. A certainty, given sufficient time. But two central aspects of the operation going dark at the same time was unlikely to be coincidence. If not blind concurrence, malign intelligence.


next chapter


Mass Wasting: Chapter Two


previous chapter


PARTING SONG

The suspended black ceiling of the Mracan Arkhos caravansary reverberated with the sound of clattering plates and rambunctious conversation from hundreds of ship-born colonists and itinerant offworlders; atmosphere miners, asteroid haulers, junk-peddlers, tourists, and white-clad colony soldiers, distinguished by coriaceous bodysuits ensconced in white synthetic chitin plate bearing the star-anchor ensignia of Kryos Industries.

Colored lights bathed a stage set far right of the room, occupied by a firm jawed man playing an ominous energetic bassline on a knulute, a backup singer with dichromatic eyes and mismatching attire, danced beside him, and a sable haired woman in a tight revealing outfit, enrapt in aural passion at the fore. Near translucent soundpieces curved around the mouths of the trio and they sang in unison.

There’s a crash

There’s a pang

There’s a thrill of mo-tion

When lights go out

Over heartless seas

But I know in my soul

Our slipper will ford them

Striving on together

With the will to please.

All moved to the pulsating music, save Rhiner, who sat a bar composed of carbon-fiber at the left corner of the chamber, far from stage and dancefloor. His visage ashen, lean, party to the mild puffiness of protracted microgravity. He rubbed his face and dropped protein cubes into the cup of coffee on the counter before him and bent to the schematics of the lunar drone Kryos’ secretary had afforded, scratching notes in his black book with intermittent regularity. After the third culinary block melted, the crowd to the right of the studious reclaimer parted as fowl before buffalo to reveal a pack of men in mangy garb, their faces smeared with grime, led by a tar-maned bruiser with a wide mouth, crooked nose and sloping forehead. The bruiser’s beady eyes narrowed as they alighted on Rhiner. “Thought we’d find you here, poacher.”

“Isn’t poaching, Taureg. Just bidding lower. Upshot of going without a crew.”

Taureg ordered a drink and sat beside Rhiner. “Downshot is, no one to watch your back.” The intruder’s men formed a perimeter. The barmaid tensed and shifted away.

“Suppose so.” Rhiner ignored the rival reclaimer’s display of power and lifted one of the cubes. “Sugar?”

The bruiser smiled like a baboon. “Sure.” Rhiner dropped the condament into Taureg’s cup and leaned back, sipping his own with expectant sidelong glances. Some of the colony guards took notice of the peculiar affair and cut toward the bar. Taureg half-gulped the liquid, face disgust riddled, and spat on the floor. He stared hard at Rhiner. “What is this shit?”

Rhiner tittered and burst into laughter. Barmaid’s mouth parted in fear as Taureg snarled and brought the half-empty cup into Rhiner’s skull, carving a ruddy gash at left temple. Rhiner instinctively raised hand to wound, jerked back and fell as the stage-wafted music reached a cresendo. Taureg howled, flying from his seat, poised to strike the recovering salvager.

Before the broil could escalate, a detatchment of colony soldiers broke upon the scene. Taureg’s crew was scattered and Taureg was restrained by two corporals and pulled from the bar, dispelling spittle, fouling the air with curses. Only those at the bar or directly adjacent noticed the disruption, the other patrons sat or twirled, enrapt in the band’s dynamic performance or their own private conversations.

A voice crested the violence, charming and steady. “You’re ruining the atmosphere.” Rhiner swiveled his leaking head and discerned the source of the statement, a man of comperable age to his own, with short wavy brown hair, spurcely combed, casually dressed, standing before the soldiers, distinguished from all present by an unfastened assidously worn monochrome coat of the kind maintenance couriers wore in the reclaimer’s homeland. Rhiner knew the figure well. Ryard Vancing, colonel of Arkhos security, second highest authority on the ship. His presence alone chilled the passions of the men. The Colonel helped the injured reclaimer from the floor, looked to his men and gestured to the rowdys. “Get them out of here.” Before Taureg or his men could protest, the soldiers whisked them from the bar to the neighboring lounge and formed a transient cordon to keep them thus.

When the mood had settled, Vancing took a seat and glanced to the barmaid. “Sorry about that, Dory.” The woman shrugged as she cleaned up the mess brought about by the scuffle. “Wasn’t your fault.” Her posture taunt, scornful, narrowed eyes set on Rhiner. “He’s the one making trouble.”

The libationist’s remark prompted a retalitory scoff. “Pettiness is easily found. But to make an art of pettiness, it takes a woman.”

Dory shook her head and left to attend other patrons.

Vancing smiled. “She still irked at you for telling her the dress makes her look,” he drew a circle in the air.

“Didn’t want to know, she shouldn’t have asked.” Rhiner grunted and, in lieu of a bandage, reached for a kelp waffer and pressed it to his head. He looked to the lounge. Taureg’s seething face visible behind the shifting crowd.

“You’re not expelling them?”

“Everyone has a part to play.”

“If you’re so chummy with the oafs, why not send them instead?”

Vancing gestured to the cut on the reclaimer’s head. “That’s why. They’re only suited for rough dives. This requires finesse. What are you doing with that waffer? Downright unsanitary. Here.” Vancing withdrew a re-gel band from an inner coat pocket and handed it to the reclaimer. Rhiner discarded the bloody waffer, took the packet and pressed it to the wound, sucking air through his teeth as he felt the familiar astringence of the material sealing the abrasion.

“When do I meet my partner?”

Vancing was silent a moment. “In a few minutes. She’ll be done with her set soon.”

“She?”

The Colonel pointed to the stage where the band was winding down from the third act of their song. The lead singer swayed, sable locks lashing a round, mischevious face, voice falling to a hush, her blue eyes momentarily meeting Rhiner’s own.

When lights go out

Over heartless seas

I know in my soul

You’re the one to ford them

I know in my soul

You’re the one for me.

“Her name’s Sidra. She’ll be your tech support.” Vancing bobbed his head to the last beats of the tune. “She’s pretty good don’t you think? You look grim. Not your kind of music?” The music fell away and the crowd erupted in applause.

“Vancing.”

“Hm?”

“I hate you.”


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