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-”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
Her words poured out unsteady with horror.
“Then who did?”