Mass Wasting: Chapter Three

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“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.

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