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.”
“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.”
“Base systems were fine when the machine went dark?”
“And in the interim?”
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.”