The House Of Starless Sky: Chapter 1-2


Hammering machines sounded as a warmarch. A man sat an iron desk at the center of the ancient, riveted facility’s ground floor, manipulating a brandless typewriter with steady violence to match the labyrinthine machines, that whirred and jutted at odd angles from cracked concrete floor to dusty tarpstrewn windows. He appeared more of the building and its darkness than flesh and blood. The smouldering site of labor, lit by a single, dim rafterborn lantern of frosted glass, affixed with an aged length of rope.

At length, the typist stopped and sat straight. Luminous eyes gleamed like polished stone. Dark-gloved hands caressed the workworn apparatus as if it were a sacred relic.

He reappraised the final lines of his work, his face a penumberal mask that concealed a vague smile.

Upon the last, fresh-inked page were the words:

“From sin’s darkling stream, there was no escape. For it trammeled the whole of the world, whose depths were as the end of it.”


The man with the golden mask stood the threshold of a fathomless abyss. Two women beside him, one dark of complexion, similarly guised, the other pale, bound and struggling. The masked man caressed the captive’s face, without tenderness, as a practiced dealer of antiquities seeking an imperfection in a replica, and finding it, tossed her to the yawning chasm. He stood the aperture triumphant as its murk went thick with a cry of primal terror. For several seconds that stretched into eternity she fell, a mass of regret and fear, until her frail body was swallowed by the hungry void.

The masks were discarded, revealing eyeless, disfigured faces. The man kissed the woman, tore her shirt and felt the supple weight of her breasts. He sunk teeth to neck, extracting a shudder of delight, then pain and blood, and in the red pool that formed, he invaded her. At the edge of the carnivorous rift, the chimera shimmered, like twin stars in the dark.

Liot Ravel woke with a shudder. Nightmares were commonplace for him, but never had any dream held the vivid potency of that from which he had egressed. He ran a pale hand through unkempt hair and shook himself, as if the gesture could dispel slumber’s black imaginings. He stripped, showered, hastened into his clothes and out the door.

Without his creaking saltbox twostory, gloaming sky. A stygian stormwall approached that appeared as a titanic centipede, set to swallow the world. Bony boughs rattled and feathered regents spun from wooden thrones, cawing, as if roused by the breath of the great spectre above. Ravel, disturbed, shook himself once more, and walked on to the old factory at the high northern outskirts of town. The place was a refuge in times of mental distress, for it afforded a stolid quietude absent the clocklike rhythm of the township.

Feeling watched, he paused in the sodden path and looked again to the massing clouds, discerning no familiar shape. With the forms dispensation, the gale ceased. Only roiling charcoal and cracks of light remained.

He worked his jaw and paced sparse, muted wood, and a patchy, rain glossed footpath until he came to his destination.

The factory perimeter, distinguished by an eight foot high gate of spined black iron, beyond which stretched an immense mechanical necropolis, strewn with husks of earthmovers, tractors, processing bins and oddments whose applications were long forgot, in tangled heaps or skewed stacks. Little vegetation grew about the industrial monument, or the fence which girded it, and that which did was yellowed and thin. Beyond the remnants, the factory itself shot skyward with ruthless, chimeric prominence. It was an exceedingly unusual building. Originally a coal plant, it had thereafter been reconstituted as a steel forge, then, a lumber yard, and other incarnations never scribed. No part of the structure had ever been torn down. Each new portion had been melded with the old, or built atop it, such that it no longer resembled a commercial facility, but rather, an immense, alien fortress. The ornateless metallic exterior and lancing smokestacks cast a long shadow over the mechanical midden and no birds nested upon it.

Liot strolled to the arched front gate and found Waltyr Clemons, clad in checkered coat and flat sporting cap, fixing a chain through the bars.

“My way is shut.”

The gatekeeper jumped and laughed, spying the entrant. “Snuck up on me.”

“What’s this?”

Clemons secured the lock with a sigh as the sky glowed blue with lighting, and a great clangor let out from heaven. “Rains coming thick. Best get to the summer house. Tell you there.” Liot nodded and together they took the path from the gate a short distance, turned into the woods, and cut to a clearing where sat a small pavilion, near old as the factory, greening with lichen, moss and vine. Inside the derelict, a heavy calcimine table, two blanketed wicker chairs, two cups, and a portable burner topped by a squat, stained samovar. Clemons sat as the air thickened with cloudblood and filled the vessels with black tea from the simmering kettle.

“Someone’s bought it.”

“Bought it?”

“Fraid so.”

“Why should anyone buy it?”

Clemons shrugged. “The owner could just as well ask why you like coming round.” The man brushed his formless hat off sunkissed brow with a callous thumb. “Why do you like coming round?”

“Helps my process. Its peaceful.”

Clemons took a sip, swallowed, and looked to the tangled, rain-curtained woods and the vanishing construct beyond.

“That it is. I think the machines scare the coyotes off. Or maybe its ancestral memory. Never seen one around here. Same with the deer. So the hunters don’t come round. Its like its own little country.”

“Population, two.”

“Ha. Mayor Ravel has a ring to it, eh?”

“No, no. I’d abdicate. Certainly, that’d be your honor.”

They laughed and drank, enjoying the warmth of the aromatic brew and the thrum of the firmament.

“Sometimes,” Clemons started. “When I’m out here alone, clearing the path to town, I try to image what it was like to live back when there was nothing but that factory and a couple of shacks.”

Liot followed his friend’s gaze to the pall beyond the pavilion and nodded.

“Must have been a hard life.”

“Might be they’d have the same opinion of us.”

“Might be.”

“People like to think the past was always sorrier than the present. There’s comfort in it. However far a man’s down, he can always say, ‘It’d have been worse back then, I’m just lucky I was born when I was.’ As if it were something to be elected.”



“You haven’t told me who bought it.”

“Oh. Sorry. Dunno.”

Ravel sighed and fiddled with his cup, eyes on the table.

“Don’t look so glum. You lost your haunt, but you got the festival to look forward too. Tess still going?” Ravel brightened at the utterance of the name and the thought of fall’s festivities.

“Yes. I should take her out here sometime. This quaint little pavilion. It’d be a nice place for a picknick.”

“Speaking of,” Clemons bent to a compartment in the desk and drew a thermos and a paperbag. “Soup and sandwiches?”

“That’d be lovely, thanks.”

As they ate in silence, Ravel glanced through the path leading to the factory. By a lull in the downpour he could make out a disntinctly human shape framed in the grime guised top floor window. The figure did not move and appeared to be looking at him. As he refocused his eyes, the torrential curtains resumed their veilments.

Was it the new owner or a manikin? Or perhaps it was merely a deceptively donned coatrack?

He turned back to Clemons. The groundskeeper maintained a number of eccentricities. Aversion to striding neath ladders for fear of incuring bad luck. Signing himself before graveyards to allay restless spirits. His superstitious turn of mind, Ravel thought, must have rubbed off.


Mass Wasting: Chapter 16

previous chapter


Thrusters aflare, Rhiner dived a half second before cyclotronic flow struck the Trimaran. He skidded to a stop behind a crystal as a stream of charged particles flashed cerulean and left a hissing score across the Trimaran’s center mass. The machine rocked and whirred, as if crying out in pain. The reclaimer switched off his suit lights, rose and stalked around the synthetic mineral, wider and taller than his body, such that he was shielded from the direction the shot had come. Senses elevated, breath rapid, eyes darting through blood hued dimness. Closeness affored sight of an eggshell band along the perimeter of the glassy projection that stood out from the basaltic stone floor, which he reckoned were some material on which the crystals could not grow, laid by the hunter or a confederate to allow a tidy observance. The man-sized path made of pallid bands curled in a shallow half circle away from the Trimaran, toward the slope that met the cliff sat entrance, passage to the crater beyond. From the corner of his semi-translucent cover, Rhiner saw nothing but burnt machine, faint lit by heaters’ ruby sheen, that ran horizonal to the edge of the cliff, out therefrom across the uneven walls of the lower sanctum. One by one, the clinging kilns expired and the ancient cavern was draped in a stygian cloak, lifted only by the steady gleam of the Trimaran’s vacillating ocular stem.

“Conduct unadvisable,” the Trimaran declared as its optical stalk snaked forth to lightless ambit, its voice whirring within the helms of the wayward men whose lives hung above the chasm of the moment. “Serious injury may occur.” The optical stalk was batted away as if by a violent phantom. The blow made no sound, for there was no air to carry it. Rhiner knew such a strike could only have come by way of the hunter’s hand, by agency of the man named Maunder Sough. The reclaimer wondered at the veiled history of his foe. He was, the Trimaran claimed, a security officer of Arkway. Such positions paid well. The paths that could lead a generously employed man to murder were manifold. Simple greed, a vendetta, or the thrill of a hunt and the pleasure of a kill. There were acmes of iniquity only men intelligent in homely decadence could reach, and such men were capable of horrors greater than the crudest savage. To fuel malefic engines, the primitive might carve foe-flesh and feast of it, but his civilized counterpart would know methods by which to do as much without terminating the object of his malevolence, so as to prolong his grisly pleasures within eternity’s disclosed laws. Rhiner had no idea when or how his nemesis had descended into the cavern. What he did know was that he could not see him in the newborn gloom and that he must run, fight, or die. He figured that Maunder was under no such disadvantage, or else he would not have killed the lights. Beset though he was, his mind conjurned half-formed histories yet unlived. Bread baked in microgravity on a new ship spearing rings of distant worlds. An intimate union, true beyond beauty. A child whose aspect bore trace of his own. A refuge lit well with light as laughter. A rent ramshackle rind, pregnant with charred remnants of what had once been a solitary man named Wilhelm Rhiner. Cities coring stars beyond number and time. None there living knowing they walked foundations his corpse had laid. Who would carry his memory after his own was sublimated to its primordial elements? Who would scribe the sacrifice that had led to his own?

The reclaimer’s rumination was waylaid by Maunder’s dulcet voice.

“You were slow switching your lights. Can’t hide long. Best come out. Would be more dignified.”

Rhiner knew it, but stood his cover, legs bent, ready to duck, roll or flee. Vancing’s words came back to him. Keep your coms secure. He cursed the thoughtless wages of instinct that had upended all forethought. Too frightened and confused to retaliate with blades, he struck with his tongue.

“A man who’d shoot another in the back recuses himself from matters of dignity.”

Maunder laughed and when he responded he did so slowly and his drawling voice was tinged with severity and subtle amusement.

“You’ve two ears and one mouth. Best listen twice more than you speak.”

“Why’s that?”

“So you’re less liable to lose all three.”

“Thought that was what you were aiming for.”

“Now what did I just say?”

“I’m listening,” Rhiner responded as he progressed through the loop between the crystal tors, heading to the aperture of the pronounced bend that let out to the main thoroughfare of the plantless greenhouse. He had initially responded reactively but now realized his communication insecurity afforded him potential for advantage. The land where the Trimaran lay was a natural dais, raised and stepped from the rest of the cavern’s stony floor. To traverse it, even an active man would be party to mild irregularity of breath, which would pinpoint the mover’s location. He listened.

“Good. Had a change of mind. Come out, slowly, with your hands up, and I won’t harm you. As you’ve probably inferred, I can’t let you be. So, we’re going to my ship. We’ll take a drive. Or you can hide, and this moon will be your tomb.”

Despite the sincerity of Maunder’s voice, Rhiner doubted the man would let him live. Probably, Rhiner thought, he wants to get me to his ship before he kills me, to save him the work of dragging a corpse.

“Not in the mood for a drive.”

A leaden silence gripped the icy sepulcher. Then a soft sigh rang in Rhiner’s ears as he shifted around his cover to an adjacent crystalline mound. The form of the hunter faintly visible by the light of the heaters, his scaled black armor shifting to purest white upon contact with illumination.

“Of course. You’re afraid. Every man loves his life and fears losing it. For a time, at least. The grip slackens, year by year. Not yet for you. That’s why you’re paralyzed. Its not love that devours fear. Love is woven with horror’s thread. Latter replicates former. So it occurs, in relation to relations. There is nothing other than horror and that which can consume it.”

A chill ran through Rhiner’s blood as he made out the stiching of his enemy’s breath. He had barely moved away from the Trimaran, which meant he was covering both exits of the loop. Breaking from the cover of the passage would mean certain death. He thought of the Trimaran schematics and the available vocal commands. Follow close, follow far. Access, disengage: Exigency. Standby, standby powerdown. Highlight, midlight, lowlight, pulsed or maintained. For a sliver of a second he saw the form of his foe ghastly white and black, a macabre chess piece come to life. He rushed around the edge of the corner, pulling down his visor, shouting, “Access, highlight, pulse.”

“What?” Maunder mused.

“Caution, activa-”


A blinding flash consumed the cavern, refracting in polychromatic splendor through crystalline turrets. Maunder groaned in pain and threw hands up against the glare, staggering back from the argent machine. As the huntsman reeled, Rhiner bounded, throwing body to the air, and, with the aid of the weak gravity of the necrosed sphere, arced higher than his height over the floor. Overpitched by the momentum of the maneuver, he threw hands out, handspringed and landed atop Maunder like a starving wolf upon a snowslick heifer. Maunder grunted with the impact and crumpled to a knee, sending his dark armament clattering soundlessly across the stepped stone expanse. For a moment the two strove against leverage of the other like squid and whale in titanic, abyssal contest. Before he could be flung free, Rhiner fastened his arms about Maunder’s throat and right arm. Teeth grit, muscles taunt.

“What’s the matter? Don’t wanna see my ship?” Maunder loosed a halfcackle as he grunted and struggled against the reclaimer’s vicelike purchase. Rhiner’s eyes went wide as the man rose, threw his left arm into the clinger’s flank and shucked the burden clear. Rhiner landed awkwardly against a dark shear in the floor and gasped as the trauma of the contact flooded his body. From his higher perch, Maunder leapt and brought a boot atop his foe, slamming the salvager to the floor, then repositioned and grabbed Rhiner by the unthreaded tether clasps on the front of his suit and shook. “Should have taken my offer.” Rhiner pried at Maunder’s arms, that clung like ravenous eels, in a vain attempt to break the grapple. The hunter’s strength was tremendous, and in that moment Rhiner knew he had no chance in a contest of pure might. With his back to the Trimaran, he cried, “Access, exigency! Access, highlight, maintain!” Again the synthetic cartographer shone and the luminance through the steeples were as a fusillade echoed by a million mirrors. The form of the huntsman was illumined, stark black against the deeper darkness, as some elasmobranchic gargoyle of tortured dream. Maunder exclaimed and turned from the light as Rhiner drove elbow to the would-be assassin’s gut. The blow sent the man reeling head over heels down the natural stairs where Rhiner had first made concealment. Without looking to the decline where the malign agent lay, Rhiner rushed the conscious mechanism and finished prying the outer casement. “He is rising,” Trimaran warned. Rhiner glanced over his shoulder and spotted Maunder’s fearsome form climbing the steps of the rise.

“He engaged his sunvisor.”

“I can see, damn you! The casement is open, get-”

Rhiner felt a hard blow at his helm and, unbalanced, fell to the floor. His brain fogged, his eyes filled with stars. Unsteadily, he pushed himself up by an elbow, panting and disoriented, as the blows came again with increased ferocity. Maunder lashed his quarry with his atemklinge, held in a firm, two-handed grip. The aggressor brought the tool down upon Rhiner’s sunvisor and sent a hideous crack sprawling. His base faceguard the sole partition from exposure and certain death. Rhiner cried out and scuttled back until a knee pinned his chest. He felt Maunder’s full weight upon him and heard his voice, tinged with glee, horrifically magnified in his ears.

“Can’t trick me a third time, scrapper.”

“Won’t be one.”

In a fluid singularity of movement, Maunder scoffed, raised the atemklinge to deliever the finishing blow, then howled as he was hauled up by the Trimaran’s uncased forearm, that gleamed amid the crystalline effervescence. The dangled manhunter struck out at the freed machine’s imprisoning limb with his free arm, the blows landing in impotent silence.

“Release me! No! Stop!” Maunder shrieked.

“Command authorization, deficient,” Trimaran replied as it raised the man higher and brought him down with such violence the stone flooring splintered and spit. He did not cry out but ragdolled and lay still, his armor cracked, his clutched arm odd-angled. The machine began to lift the man’s body for another blow but Rhiner interceded. “Disengage, exigency.” The machine dropped Maunder’s limp arm and turned its bulk, liken to a giant skeletal insect. He won’t be bothering us any more. Access midlight, maintain.” The machine dimmed its lights. Rhiner caressed the jagged fissure of his ruined sunvisor and raised it, then sighed and leaned against the automaton.

“You should rest.”

“That’s what I’m doing. Stay still for a moment.”

“Very well.”

“I appreciate the assistance.”

“That is predictable. If I had not intervened, you would be dead.”

“That’s why I’m,” he paused, recognizing he was shouting, and lowered his voice. “That’s why I thanked you.”

“Understood. You should not stress yourself.”

Rhiner closed his eyes and let his head fall against the center mass of the spidery drone. For moments beyond counting, he lay sucking air and reveling in his triumph. Then a thought occurred and the man raised himself from the stationary frame.

“You mentioned you had access to Arkway personnel data.”


“All personnel?”

“As of last update.”

Beneath his helm, Rhiner gave a wolfish grin.

“Come. We’re moving out. While we do, I need you to run a search.”


The pair turned and, by Trimaran’s luminance, trekked past the crystals, to the slope up the cliff, and quit the cave.

Neither noticed Maunder’s outstretched hands twitch and close upon fractured gabbro.

next chapter forthcoming

Mass Wasting: Chapter 15

previous chapter


Inlain suit lights cleaved recessed shadows as the chain of recent events tightened on the reclaimer’s disordered mind. Constricting as the labyrinthine vault. Despite shaking his murderous pursuer, he felt trapped, tangled in invisible thread. The plot hatched against Castramare was grander, more insideous, than he had imagined, but clearer now than it had been on the Raumhake. The model in his mind, once invidious mist, assumed a definate shape. Forty feet on, the downward-slanting aperture narrowed. Sharp rock jutted from walls like knives of stone, sheared incongrously by the ancestral upheaval that had birthed the canal. No creation void of destruction. He hated knives, or rather, the effect they produced in him. Any proximity to the instruments, whether handling or passing one unsheathed, lit a slithering fear he had been sliced. Occasionally this terror would seize hold even if a knife was covered, and linger for hours, prompting an obsessive assessment of flesh for abrasions. Yet the alluvial blades of his suit had never bothered him. It was a deep-seated irrationalism he put down to an overactive threat response, and narrow, hazy recollections of childhood panic, which now set his hairs on end as he turned sideways and inched through the fractured subduct. He hoped it wouldn’t collapse. But hope didn’t get. It either would or it wouldn’t. Fretting was pointless. He crushed his hope to action and primed to bolt or dive. Pulse rose and thoughts of abandonment crawled through his brain. Nothing. The walls would hold. For now.

He pressed on and lifted arms to ward the mineral protrusions, though he knew it was impossible for them to pierce the suit. Then he stopped. His metallic eyes focused on his rind’s affin module screen, where various pertinent timezones and ambient temperature in and outside the suit were displayed. The surrounding temperature read ninety five degrees Farenheit. He presumed there was a mistake. Mapped lunar cavern temperatures ranged from below freezing to sixty three degrees. He refreshed the temperature display, prompting its autorecalibration, and watched for fluxuation. None. The heat was constant and increased the further down he trekked into the cave. It made no sense to the man, there was nothing to trap the heat. Twenty steps forward and the temperature spiked nearly ten degrees. He struck the wall in a fit of revelation. “An artificial source.” As silt spilled from the ceiling he tensed and loosed a sound halfway between cough and laugh. When no cave in came, he carried on through the dark. His breath, the only sound. The nervous energy surpressed during his flight from the black ship began leaking out of him. He was aware, with crippling acuity, of his weariness, and slumped, wanting desperately to lean against the aged walls for support, but stayed upright for fear of displacing the ceiling. Thoughts bounded unbidden as the path constricted and steepened. There was less than two inches to either side of him. He thought of the Raumhake malfunction, Tavistock’s honor, Lunders’ sunken fear, Coralis’ blithe merriment, Fenton’s past with Soligrange, the tourists, one spirit doped, one cruel of eye, the black ship, the explosions, the collapsing cliff. He spun and searched the way he had come, expectant of a darkstalking shape. There was nothing in the tunnel but drifting motes and the wide beams of his astronautic rind. He remembered the ridiculous nickname Sidra had given him. He had disdained it, at first, just as he had her, but the more he heard it, the more he liked it.

“I’ll show you I’m worthy of it, woman. And more besides,” he muttered into the illumined nullity.

At last he came to a division in the tunnel. Two branching paths. He followed Trimaran’s tracks down the left passage, descended to a wide cavern and seized the wall. He could not believe the sight that lay before him and blinked. Yet when eyes opened, the fantastical sight remained.

Crystals. The cave was composed of two differentially sized chambers, filled with giant crystals. He looked once more to his affin module. Temperature read 136 degrees. He tilted his head up and found the source. Portable industrial heaters installed in the walls. Rhiner couldn’t understand how it operated. Crystals should not have been able to grow in such an environment, for there was no substance to accumulate upon them. He recalled what Sidra said after she fixed the autocus. Kryos’ drones aren’t fabricated, they’re grown.

It was a mineral farm. An inorganic nursery.

He raised his left hand and pounded the side of his helmet.

“Idiot! How could I not see it sooner?”

The revelation shocked him to immobility and for several seconds he stared numbly at the floor and flexed his hands, as if the enigma’s threads, which now he held, were tangible entities. His expression was first of horror, then of wrath. Murderous hate summoned a deeper stillness. There were two pertinent details of which he was unsure, but once he found the drone, provided it had not been destroyed, he would have them. He buried anger beneath the weight of obligation and movement returned like magma under the sea. The ground leveled off and extended several yards before falling some fifty feet to a great expanse, which confined the bulk of the cultivated mineral protrusions. At the rightmost end of the drop-off was a gradual slope that curved round to the base of the promontory. He moved to the edge of the drop, knelt and reached for one of the overhanging spires that had grown like a desert shrub from the sheer side of the cliff. Before his fingers made contact a mechanical voice crepitated within the audio system within his helmet.

“That is unadvisable.”

Digits wavered over latticework and withdrew. He craned his neck, lights sweeping away shade, and discovered the source of the inhuman voice at the far end of the lower cavity, surrounded by frosted spires, larger than those that sprouted from the cliff. It was the Trimaran. The magnificent survellience device appeared immobile upon a crystal matrix, but its forward monitor still functioned and followed the stunned arrival’s movements with unerrant precision.

“Why?” Rhiner asked the machine after he recovered.

“Observe me.”

Rhiner walked from the main cluster of nearby spires, stood the ledge overlooking the primary crystal repository and realized he had been mistaken in his initial assessment of the drone. It wasn’t on top of crystals, it was turning into one. The white and blue-striped outer shell on its six legs were crusted with pale, semi-translucent material. Monitor stalk and central carapace were untouched. The automaton continued speaking as he studied its petrifying body.

“Crystalline growth in a suit of standard manufacture would severely debilitate your mobility, in tissue, it would prove fatal.”

Dozens of questions sprang to his lips. What were the crystals composed of? Who built them? Why? How did the drone end up here? But there was no time for that. He needed to move it, lest his pursuer return to investigate the crater.

“Can you move?”

It was only then Rhiner realized the crystals were shifting, spiderwebbing across the ground and eeking into the air. The process was slow, but not so slow as to be imperceptible to Rhiner’s synthetic eyes. The base of nearest mineral strut was slowly expanding, through what appeared as a layer of frost. He drew back his boot to avoid the creeping excresence.

“I am unauthorized to answer your query.”

He sighed. Kryos’ automatons were designed without capacity for speech, he suspected he understood why. “Castramare unit, Trimaran, I am Wilhelm Rhiner, authorization code, Carnival Flamingo.” Had his mood not been so black he would have felt amusement at the ridiculous passcode he gleaned from Tavistock’s data packet. During Luders’ tour, he had noticed a movie in the game room titled, Carnival Flamingo, and induced the code’s source. It was unwise, he thought, to select the familiar for defense. Successful predators obtained intimate knowledge of their prey and all that was familiar thereto would be exploited.

The lighted lens of the Trimaran’s monitor stalk shifted from red to blue.

“Personnel authorization granted.”

“Can you move?”

“I cannot.”

“Is it the crystals?” He spoke as he worked down the slope to the bottom of the cavity, taking care to weave through the crystals without touching them. The Trimaran was now only a few yards away.

“Negative. Present crystal growth is insufficient to restrain me. Ejection of my outer casement is necessary to avoid contamination.”

“So eject it.”

“I cannot. He disabled my motor system.”

He halted before the crusted machine, its reticulated head-stalk extending toward him like the trunk of a curious elephant.


“Maunder Sough, a likely former or present Arkway security officer.”

“How do you know this? Surely he didn’t tell you his name?”

“He did not, but shifted briefly while conducting a communication via affin module. His name was there displayed.”

“I see, no reason for him to take precaution if he was going to wipe your memory.”

“Quite so.”

“How did you induce he was connected to Arkway?”

“As of last system update, Arkway security provided aeronautic rinds composed of multi-chromatic gel carbide, layered in placoid pattern. This is what he wore. Additionally, I maintain a ledger of all past and present company personnel. ” The machine’s sensory stalk moved over the reclaimer’s body.

“What are you doing?”

“Examining. Your suit is of non-standard manufacture. Conclusion, you are not an employee of Arkway, nor of any other organization of which I am aware. Sub-conclusion, you are a contractor, hired to investigate my disappearence.”

“Can see why your price tag was so high.”

“This was a compliment?”

He ignored the question and scanned the spire-studded ambit around the drone. An Arkway control terminal stood a few strides to the left, to the right a recess blocked by crystals ran deeper down.

“Alright. I’m gonna get you out of here.”

He set about prying the Trimaran’s outer shell, moving his hands with care to keep from colliding with lattice infused regions.

“Haste would be optimal.”

“I’m making haste.”

“He will certainly return, consequently-”

“Can you shut up?”

“I can.”

“Well, don’t. Question just occurred to me. You said you have a list of all Arkway personnel?”

“It does,” a new voice, male, smooth, chilling, reverberated in his ears. “Unfortunately, you will not live to hear it.”

next chapter

Mass Wasting: Chapter 14

previous chapter


Wilhelm left the base for perpetual day at the striking of midnight on his homeworld, and trammeled the crag circled depression where the Raumhake lay. Sidra had insisted on going but he, viewing the sojourn as too dangerous for her, had suggested she search the lava tubes for the missing wirecrawlers instead. When she did not relent, his suggestion became a command, which she, grudgingly, obeyed. Within the ship, he primed ofthalamos for stationary orbit and watched the silvery machines pour into the cloudless black vault like a school of iridescent fish cutting toward an ocean floor. Ofthalamos were initially created for cloud planting but found further use for atmospheric monitoring offworld. The set he dispersed were older models, built before planned obselesence became a mainstay of their production. The cost for a single unit was such that reclaimers typically rented one or went without. To Rhiner, that was short-sighted. One should always be prepared for every concievable eventuality. That he did was the only reason he was still alive. The reason he hadn’t perished five years ago when he was thrust, in a damaged suit, to the black maw of nihility. The calamity had taken his eyes, but expanded his sight. He was glad for the terror, for, like an acid, it had dissolved all petty inclinations, diminutive grudges, superfluous envies and errant lusts, leaving only the will, raw and resolute.

He shifted to gauntlet-inlaid console screen, where ofthalamos’ atmospheric readings glowed. If any objects of sufficiently threatening size bore upon his course, his eyes in the sky would alert him. He wouldn’t have much time to react, but it would be enough, if cover was to hand.

Wilhem raised his sun visor and scanned the glaring ambit. The mare surrounding the base was composed of flat plains bordered by low, smooth slopes for miles around, further out from the day-night terminus, the land declined and speckled scarps punctured the sky.

He debarked the Raumhake on the skiff, following the drone’s tracks away from Castramare’s dark cliffs, toward a distant lull, beyond which lay Kalte Höhle Crater. Silt streamed behind the vehicle as it speared the horizon like a pike scattering minnows. All around the transport, the undulating ashen ground bore countless perforations of extraorbital material, dross from other worlds, slag from asteroid mines. The closer he drew to his destination, the greater the number of impacts, the finer the grain. The waterless lacus there narrowed to a stocky canyon. Rhiner looked to the ofthalamos-fed topographic data on his gauntlet. The canyon was part of an elaborate system that appeared, from orbit, as a great tangle of enormous worms. There was no swifter way to the crater than through the immediate natural corridor. Fifty feet inside the undulating gorge his gauntlet affin module screen went crimson and read, “Warning: Descending objects detected. Impact imminent. Evasion window: ~50 seconds.” His hands tightened on the controls. The divide extended over a mile and afforded no avenue of departure. Through gauntlet and ofthalamos, he observed the trajectory of the falling material as comprising a uniform angle and determined to hug the rightward wall. If the incoming objects were small meteroids, as seemed to the driver most probable, they would collide harmlessly with the clifftops.

Moments after he swerved starboard, close to the cliff-face as possible without collision, a great jet of particulates cascaded fifty feet before him. Half the edifice caved away in a burst of energy of such magnitude its wake rattled through Rhiner’s bones. His jaw went tight as a steel trap as he slammed the skiff’s joysticks forward, sped through crumbling haze, underneath the collapsing basalt ridge and out beyond the billowing ruin. As he glanced back at the smote landscape, a dreadful realization dawned.

The objects the ofthalamos detected weren’t meteorites.

They were missiles.

He wrenched the joysticks back as the ravine wall before and behind him exploded. Swerving hard to the left, he was able to evade the brunt of the stonedust avalanche. Then a vibration, rattling up through the back of the skiff and the whole of it spun out of the itinerant’s control and threw him clear before smashing into the rightward cliff, there succumbing to the collapse.

For a moment, Rhiner could no longer distinguish up from down, east from west. His body ached from the impact and his mind was thick with black imaginings. He knew not who had shot at him, he knew only that he had to run. Lunging from the ground, he abandoned the half-buried transport and hurtled along the gorge’s final stretch. He glanced back and discerned a shape in the sky. A ship the color of oil, discernable only by contrast with the darker blackness of the void. His nameless foe, agent of the kestrel. After a sharp intake of breath he spoke into his cosmonautic rind’s left arm and monitored the distant craft. He hoped, without much confidence, that the pilot had lost track of him.

“Sidra. Target’s tracks led to Kalte Höhle Crater. I was attacked. There’s a ship, a military slipper. You need to alert the commander. Sidra?”

Seconds passed and felt like minutes. No reply. Another glance to the sky. With a thrill of horror and quickening pace, he realized his shadowy pursuer had looped around the devastated zone and was drawing near once more.

“Sidra? Come in!” He switched to Castramare’s coms. “Base! Its Rhiner. Base? Come in!”

He was greeted only by his own labored breath and pounding pulse.

Now beyond the canyon, gray orbs imaged a steep, striated hollow, half in shadow, over three hundred feet deep, wider in diameter. Within the visible arc of the depression, nothing moved. Trimaran’s tracks ranged from rim to floor of the declivity. Six narrow prints vanished over the precipice to the north. The lunar traveler contemplated without pausing. “No drag marks. Ambulatory systems undamaged when the mechanism passed. It got this far on its own. It either got stuck in a crevice, or…”

There was no longer time to ponder. The vessel had dipped low and slowed above the canyon. Scanning the scene of ruin. Looking for a corpse.

Nowhere to go but down.

Heart, a hammer. Ears, a drum. Another hop forward. Puff of pale sediment. Silt spilled from the mouth of the antrum and drifted to the half shaded impress like the powder of a snowglobe. Without stopping, he inhaled deeply, closed his eyes, and leapt from crater’s edge in a flurry of electic dust. His irises shot wide. Pulse, thrumming like the merger of two black holes. Down he bounded from the cliff, heels slicing ancient, superficial deposits, finding harder rock beneath, but that too crumbled and he went sliding out on his back in a perilous whirl. A repeat of his training mishap. But this time he was ready. A fan of hooked blades sprung from his right arm toward the point of departure, biting antiquated ejecta.

The traveler beheld, approximately twelve meters before him, a sheer drop from the collapse of the caldera wall, which had been hidden by the angle of his descent. Over sixty meters down. He cursed and thrust his left heel to the alluvium as the pit’s black maw loomed. He didn’t want to activate the hall thrusters built into the suit, would kick up too much dust and cloud his vision. Possibly spin him out over the drop with greater speed than under present momentum. He’d known a man named Benny who tried to boost his way down a similar crater. The fellow had gone so fast he cut himself in half on a tor near the base. He resolved to avoid a similar fate and punched his left arm into the fulgurated silt as the velocity decreased and his body began to tilt awkwardly to the side from the drag of the flexile metal vanes. Less than a meter from the collapsed incline the combination of blade manipulation and ardent physical exertion brought him to a halt. He lay on his back a moment, still as possible, breathing heavily, legs dangling over the precipice as a shadow blanketed the land. Rhiner watched the hull of a small spacecraft shoot overhead and vanish behind the crater’s adjacent rim.

He sighed in relief and, still on his back, crawled like a coconut crab to the east to where the land sloped more gradually, and there eased down to the dust caked floor of the half shadowed pit.

Two rows of inhuman impressions were visible, running from the opposite edge of the crater to the sheer drop from which Rhiner had dangled. He followed them to where they vanished within a tall, narrow fissure in the rock face, just wide enough for a grown man to squeeze through, and halted.

He checked his suit’s oxygen supply and removed a pack affixed to the back of his exoskeleton. From it, he drew an instrument near wide as his chest, approximating the characteristics of a metal post digger. Near the pommel were the words, Atemklinge Mondmodell 11. He unfurled the instrument, hefted it high and thrust it into the ground. After the man had worked the edge of the atemklinge into the pliant sediment, he scooped up as much as possible and enclosed the prize within the beakish blades of the mechanism. A thin light ring at the handle turned blue. Sealed and active. He checked his watch in the affin display. It would take five hours for the atemklinge to extract an appreciable amount of oxygen from the regolith, and six for his present supply to run out. Eleven hours to conduct a search of the cave. Plenty of time. He refolded and affixed the atemklinge to the back of his suit and plunged into the dark.

next chapter

Mass Wasting: Chapter 13

previous chapter


The lowest level of the lunar outpost was devoid of the bright colors of the upper floors, and was split into dual wings, north and south, each containing two chambers spliced with thick columns sintered into the mount. Rhiner took the southern pass, across a metallic floor adorned by wall mounted portable heaters and handholds extended at regular intervals from the ceiling next to wire enmeshed walls. He had no use for the grips, for his footfalls rang steady by the magnetic pull of his soles. The heaters, however, were a welcome reprieve from the frigidity of the subterranean block. By subtle degrees, the generator’s humming faded to an oppressive, soothing silence that reminded the strider of Kryos’ water dome. The short corridor terminated in a branching path with doors left and right. He took the left portal, stiffled a cough from a rising congestion brought on by the extended journey and lunar gravity, and beheld a wide sediment-laden laboratory lit by frosted glass. At an instrument-saddled table to the back of the space the snow-haired and slender frame of Percival Fenton. He was an old man, with stooped shoulders of the scholar, yet his sparkling eyes and sinewy movements pronounced a hidden vitality and force of will that scoffed at time. The geologist looked up from an assortment of green glass sphericules he had been studying, most no larger than pebbles, a few, the size of his fist, and spoke in a curt, cold, impatient fashion.

“Kryos’ leal hound.”

“That’d be Colonel Vancing. I work freelance.”

“So you’re a mercenary.”

“I’ve no objection to the term. Do you conduct your work for free?”

The geologist gave a thin smile that attested no mirth, only the squelching of rebarbative words. “And what do you hope to find in my study, mercenary? The Trimaran? Surely your time would be better spent,” Fenton halted as his gaze lighted upon Rhiner’s eyes. “At the crater.”

“That’s my next destination.” Rhiner rested his hands on his utility belt and met the geologist’s gaze. “But there were a few things I wanted to ask you first, professor.”

The subtle appeal to vanity produced a slight change in the aged researcher’s attitude. With the subdued exasperation of a man served a warrant, Fenton pushed the scale aside and gazed up under his brows at the reclaimer. He put palms to table, as if expelling vexation through the contact, and softened his tone. “How can I be of assistance?”

“The port to the lava tubes is in the room across the hall, correct?”

“You’ve studied the plans. Yes.”

“And you spend most of your time on-base in here?”

“Not in here specifically, but on this level.”

“What time do which members of the crew sleep?”

Wariness came into the professor’s narrow hazel eyes. “Shifts alternate in eight hour pairs, the commander and Luders should be going to sleep,” he glanced to his wrist-bound affin mod. “In a few minutes. Then, Corialis and I.”

“You sleep down here?”

“Yes. On that couch, usually.” The scientist gestured to a bare padded cot with three adjustable straps for chest, torso and legs, suggestive, when taken with the antiseptic and orderly character of the laboratory, of an anticipatory, ascetic regime.

“You wake easy?”

“No, I’m a deep sleeper.”

“Have you been woken by any disturbances since the Trimaran’s disappearence?”

Fenton stiffened, face creased with suspicion. “I don’t like the implications of this line of questioning.”

“Don’t blame you for that, but I’d still like an answer. And another favor.”

“And that would be?”

“Keep the implications to yourself. Until I have something definate.”

“You suspect one of us. Who?”

“I didn’t say as much.”

“You didn’t have to. The only reason you’d ask if I’d been woken by someone is if you thought they had secretly moved the wirecrawlers from the base while I slept. Corialis or the Commander must have told you of their absence. You should then realize its unlikely I was who removed them, if, indeed, anyone actually did remove them. There are only two possibilities. Either they were sent down through the automated chute as usual, or they were carried, or instructed, down here, disassembled and smelted in the extractor. You’ve doubtless read all our biographies, so you know I’m not capable of operating Corialis’ trinkets, nor, as you can observe, am I powerful enough to carry them. Even you or Luders would not be able to cart them by hand, alone, from the upper floor to here. They’re simply too heavy, that’s why they’re lowered into the cavern by a mechanized carrier. This could all be a failing on Corialis part. The consequences of some unseen glitch. That’s, of course, what I’d like to believe. But it isn’t what I think. The confluence of events does not suggest it. Though I am at a loss as to why someone would wish to do something like this. I’ve come to know them all quite well and I cannot imagine they would ever do anything so stupid as make off with vital equipment just to… what, I wonder. Do you have a theory?”

Rhiner offered an enigmatic, mirthless smile. He was impressed with Fenton’s boldness and clarity of thought, but those were precisely the qualities required for the commission of the crimes under discussion. “I haven’t accused anyone of anything, professor. Besides, I’m only here to retrieve lost property, I’m not an agent of the law.”

“There is no law in such places.” Fenton watched his guest a moment and, realizing the reclaimer intended no further divulgence, changed the subject. “You’re congested.”

“How do you figure?”

“Your breathing is labored.” The geologist turned from his guest and strode to a leafy plant growing in a tiered agricultural matrix in the corner. He plucked several of the small green leaves, rolled them together and handed them to the reclaimer. “Chew it. Can’t promise you’ll like the taste but it’ll clear your sinuses, soothe your throat, get rid of your headache, if you have one, and given you put your back to the light, I assume you do.”

All that Fenton said was true. His congestion had started in the Raumhake from constant traversals between ring acceleration and microgravity. A sharp stabbing pain concentrated in the head, had welled up in the reclaimer after his conversation with Corialis, which he put down to the comparatively harsher lighting of the base’s upper floor.

“Its the upstairs lights,” Fenton declared, as if reading Rhiner’s mind. “I’ve been working on new coverings for them, to soften the glare.” He gestured to a dark machine that spanned ceiling to floor, situated in a wall depression far from the surrounding instruments.

Rhiner took the leaf roll with a courteous nod. “Thank you.” He chewed on the foliage and inspected the device. “What is it?”

“Our regolith processor. Once samples are brought up from the tubes, they’re placed inside, heated, and seperated into iron, silicon, aluminum, and oxygen. Then,” he moved to a translucent container neighboring the bulky processing unit and withdrew a lightweight panel of glassy material. “We recompose the extracts for pharmacuticals, photovoltaics, and other things.” He motioned proudly to the exquisite acid-etched light fixtures.

“Molten electrolysis?”

“Yes. You are surprisingly knowledgable for a reclaimer.” The man paused a moment to take in Rhiner’s amused expression and held a hand up. “I meant no offense. With every field, second-raters are the lion’s share.”

“We were all second-raters once.”

“Quite so. Well, I should be getting back to work. Unless there was anything more you wished to ask?”

“No, that’ll be all, professor. Thank you.”

Rhiner turned to behold a feminine silhouette in the doorway. Sidra.

“My lab is turning into a zoo.” Then, to Sidra, forcing a cheerful tone. “Ah, another guest.”

“No, no. Just came to collect my partner. The commander was kind enough to prepare us some food before he went to bed. I’m Sidra, by the way.” She moved into the room and held out a hand to the old man, who took and pressed it cordially in his own.


Rhiner and Sidra retired to the hallway, neither speaking until they exited the wing.

“Well?” Sidra prompted.

“Our geologist is clever. His thoughts ran parallel to my own. He has the wit to pull off such a crime. Yet, so far as I could determine, he told the truth.”

“Perhaps you’re just not a good judge of character.”

“If I was I wouldn’t have a cut on my head. You’ll have to pick up my slack. How was your conversation with Stalmyre?”

“Nice. Not very productive. She didn’t know anything about what was going on. She’s more interested in moon rocks than the station.”

“I imagine she and Fenton get along quite well.”

“Yes. You wouldn’t believe how much she knows about archaeology. Kept going on and on about ancient pottery and fossil evidence of early insect lineages. Was a little exasperating, honestly.”

The whole matter was exasperating to the reclaimer, for the more he learned, the darker it became. He could see the pattern, but its purpose was obscured.

“Where to now?”

Rhiner stopped with one hand on the ladder and a dire expression.

“The crater.”

next chapter forthcoming

Mass Wasting: Chapter 12

previous chapter


Rhiner and Sidra left Tavistock in his office and retired to the comparatively spacious viewing lounge, where the holidaymakers conversed and the crew’s cook and coms officer, Robert Luders, awaited. Though Luders had shown the arrivals into the outpost, the man had made little impression on Rhiner’s mind, so little, in fact, that only a vague recollection of his appearance and manner was retained. Only minutes prior, the reclaimer had heard the man speak, but could not recall his tone. Had heard him walk, but could not recall the rhythm of his gait. Some people, Rhiner considered, were like fast moving objects caught at the periphery of vision. Blurred and indistinct, within, so apprehended in like fashion without.

Luders gave a curt nod, gestured to the hall which extended between the entrance-set decontamination chamber and commander’s quarters, and strolled on. The outlanders trailed their guide down a short flickering beige corridor, decorated with numerous pictures of planetside vistas, a few of which Rhiner recognized, and a piece of white paper adorned in signatures, and at the bottom, the words, “Wishing you luck.” A parting gift from the team back home.

He turned from the signage and re-studied Luders. The longer he looked, the stranger he found him, for every aspect was contradicted by another. Imposing in stature, timid in demenor. Powerful in gait, soft, almost feeble of tone. There was an air of dejection and agitation about his slightly downturned wide, thin-lipped mouth, slumped posture, and constantly flexing hands. Nothing unusual about that, given the circumstances. He could have been worried about being blamed for lack of progress due the drone’s absence. Or it could have been the residue of some personal spat. An argument with his superior. Or he could simply be homesick. The singular aspect, Rhiner regarded, was found within his darting emerald eyes, which disclosed no mere routine anxiety, but glimmers of some intense, hastily buried fear. An inhumed corpse whose moldering tresses peeked with chromatic antagonism through a bed of reedy quitch. Rhiner wondered as to the source of this perturbation as Sidra made small talk with their escort.

“Must get humdrum in here.”

“Not really. Ms. Stalmyre is quite a storyteller.”

“Is something wrong?” Sidra asked.

Luders stiffened. “No. Nothing. Why?”

“You seem worried.”

“We’re all worried. There’s a lot riding on our success.” He pivoted, cleared his throat, and gestured to a side chamber. “Anyways, this is our entertainment module. Books, films, games, rudimentary simulation system, ladders up to the observatory and down to the generator and lava tubes are in there. The cavity which the base was built on extends all the way beneath the ridge, so if you’re checking around it, that’s your shortcut. Oh, should mention. Anything that’s name-tagged in the game room belongs to one of us, anything that isn’t is Arkway property. So make sure you return whatever you use or they’ll send you the bill.” He motioned to the adjacent module. “And this is the exercise module. Has a small centrifuge for microgravity alleviation. Probably won’t be using it, but go right ahead if you want. And if you get on the treadmill, be careful on the higher settings and make sure you use the body straps. Don’t tell him I said this, but, the first time the commander used it, he didn’t strap in and launched himself into the wall.” Sidra stiffled an uproarious laugh as Rhiner berated her with a sullen glare. Luders pretended to ignore the discord between his guests and carried on, pointing to the room neighboring the exercise module. “Showers, interconnecting to the workout room, and across from it, our kitchen. We grow most of it here, but there’s a few packaged meals left over, if that’s your preference.” They reached the end of the corridor. And here is our fabrication center. This is where I leave you. I have my own work to attend to. Ms. Coralis and Mr. Fenton can answer any further questions you might have, they’re both more knowledgable about the terrain and the drone than me.”

After Luders’ departure, Rhiner withdrew his book and mades a hurried entry concerning the man’s positive dispositional shift upon mentioning Stalmyre, his use of “Ms. Coralis,” rather than her first name, and the quiver of disdain when mentioning Fenton. “Be with you in a minute,” a female voice called from obscurity. Rhiner looked up from the book and took in the contours of the fabrication center. It was a large teal chamber, more spacious than the viewing area or the commander’s quarters, filled with stacks of preciously balanced machinery and handwritten notes pinned to the walls. A small folding desk covered in papers neighbored a padded chair, stained in industrial residue. In the lefthand corner lay a complex armature, on which hung several calf-sized automatons, and behind them, the form of a tall, flame-haired woman, who moved with great concentration. Shelly Coralis.

Rhiner lowered his voice and leaned to Sidra. “That man is frightened.”

“Worried. You heard what he said.”

“It wasn’t just worry.”

“Might be you he’s frightened of.”


“You’re quite grim.”

He crossed his arms. “Am I?”

“See.” She grinned. “Especially because…” She gestured to his unnatural metallic eyes.

He shook his head. “Wasn’t me he was frightened of.”

“For someone so perceptive you don’t pay a lot of attention to the effect you have on people.”

“Uh huh. Well. I’m going to talk to Stalmyre, see if she can provide some insight. You stay here.”

“I think it’d be better if I talk to her. You seen how she looked at you. Like I said. Grim. Girls don’t like grim.”

“Fine. I’ll talk to-”

“Shelly Coralis, and you must be Mr. Rhiner, and Ms. Sidra, so sorry to keep you waiting.” Rhiner recoiled as he realized his hand had been seized by the large red-headed woman before him. He shook cordially and passed her off to Sidra. “Everything is disappearing around here,” Coralis continued. “First the satellite, then poor Tri, now our wirecrawlers are going poof.” Rhiner had familiarized himself with wirecrawlers on past jobs. They had originally been concieved for the laying of deepsea cables, but had since been repurposed for offworld construction. Fleets of the wire-bearing automatons would be sent throughout the lavatubes beneath Castramare, to prepare for the expansion of new bases. The strategy had the advantage of eliding installation of new reactors, but the disadvantage of hitching all new outposts to the originary structure, such that if there was a failure with the reactor, all power would be lost.

“Gremlins,” Sidra hypothesized.

Coralis threw up her hands. “I just might start to believe it.”

Sidra excused herself as Rhiner strode to the hauling devices and examined them. Two were devoid of the orange-blue paint job which adorned the rest and all were of identical size, slightly smaller than the Trimaran, and composed of a hard, flexile exoskeleton that made furtive egress difficult. “So only two have gone missing?”

“That’s right. How’d you know that.”

He gestured to the unpainted carapaces. “When?”

“One after the Trimaran vanished. The other right before you arrived.”

“Do you maintain sensors in the tunnels under the base?”

“Not yet.”

“So anything that occurs below ground is opaque to you?”

“Anything not relayed through the wirecrawlers, yes.”

“And how many do you need to continue work here on schedule?”

“Just two. One carrying a bundle north, another, south.”

“Your commander didn’t mention this matter to me.”

“I’ve enough material to make several more, even if all of them went missing. Its not nearly important as losing the Trimaran.”

“I wonder about that,” he muttered to himself.

next chapter forthcoming

Mass Wasting: Chapter 11

previous chapter


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?”


“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.”

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Mass Wasting: Chapter 10

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“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, will take a while for it to heal,” she cooed, petting the contraption’s head.


She turned to the man, crowned by the decrepit halo of the moon, visible through the wide crew commons window.

“Kryos’ drones aren’t fabricated, they’re grown.”


“Sorry, samurai, that’s confidential.”

He nodded with mild disapointment.

“Anyways, whoever messed with it added a hidden directive. Hence our recent troubles.”

“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.”


“To sabotage an offworld facility. Nearly all of 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 earnest 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 recoiled in disgust and slipped a pillow between her head and his thigh and shifted away, then 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. It slipped mine to ask. I’ll go over the files and-”

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


“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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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.”


“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

previous chapter


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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