The Bureau of the Alioth Independents was near the Nadir Point of the Orbis station. It was where one of its two traffic arms connected the habitation torus with the central docking cylinder. There were shops and markets everywhere as well as commuting services and representative offices of the more important players in the Megrez system, like the Alioth Independents.
Inside the office, Andrew Gaspurr was sitting in a big lounge sofa with a cup of hot coffee and some 3D printed cookies. He felt like being in a sales show of some kind but then again he also was in need of money and some answers and for that a chatting sales clerk, some cookies and some coffee were acceptable sacrifices. The clerk from the Independents seemed to be about his age. He wore a white suit and something of a light green kimono-like robe. Andrew was sure it was the latest fashion somewhere but it was also suitable to show the rift between ‘fronteers’ and ‘stationeers’ that was the subject of so many space bar jokes.
“Good day, citizen. My name is Dyllan Kruger, and I am First Councilor of the A.I. here at Clement Terminal. I see you opted for one of the deep space missions we put out some days ago. We already started to worry no one would show up.” Kruger put on a perfect sales smile and tried to look eagerly at Andrew.
Andrew, in turn, gave the clerk a good measure. He was accustomed to dealing with sales people and those ‘Councilors’ were essentially people selling problems they could not or would not handle to those who could and would. So Andrew played along as best as he could: “Good day and thanks for the coffee. Yes, I’m interested. I have a schedule for next month but since you stated the mission would be two weeks tops I figured why not? It sounds very interesting. Deep space, a stellar survey, astrophysics and how did you call it? ‘Making a difference’? I must say I’m intrigued.”
“Excellent! We here at Alioth Independents value high spirits, flexibility and the willingness to make a difference. We checked the dossier you sent us and it fits nicely. You hold an active pilots license with the Pilots Federation and have a proven flight record. It’s suitable for the mission, especially your deep space flight hours.”
Andrew laughed out loud: “Hours? I just came back from a months’ long round trip.”
Kruger shifted in his chair and then started to laugh as well. It was an artificial laugh, like one you get in sales commercials for products you never want to buy anyway.
“Well, Mister Gaspurr. A month has 720 hours, hasn’t it? So shall we say, you have many, many hours?”
“Yeah, call it what you will, I certainly did my fill of space trucking. If you think I ‘fit in nicely’ and can handle your assignment, why not give me some more details so I can get the picture. The mission specs mentioned the Corona Australis region?”
Kruger suddenly started to look serene, pointed one of his manicured fingers at him and played the ‘you just hit the nail on the head’ card: “Straight to the point and no BS, huh? I like that! I really like that, citizen. So here’s the story: Three weeks ago the Independents accepted a contract for an exploration assignment. It involved a certain volume of space in the Corona Australis region and some rather mundane survey parameters, you got that right. The Corona is a rather dull and neglected stretch of space. We sent out four ships but so far only three have returned. The fourth has failed to report in. We had four emergency meeting points for the assignment and the ship failed to show up at any of these so we suspect an accident or other unforeseen dilemma. We have two weeks left to fulfil the contract but since our ships are needed elsewhere to support an Alliance trade campaign we are setting up this search and rescue mission and handing it out to experienced spacers like you. It’s about getting the job done, yes sir!”
Andrew thought about that for a moment. Of course the guy was not genuinely honest with him. That was part of the deal when you were hooking up with major local players. But then again, that guy was surprisingly open with details. Andrew hadn’t even accepted the mission yet. And something didn’t fit in.
“Have the other pilots reported anything unusual during their survey?”
Kruger reached into his inner pocket and produced a handheld holo panel. He started to summon some figures and numbers, while addressing Andrew in a businesslike tone: “In fact they did, and that is why we need someone with extensive deep space experience. Of the three, one pilot reported nothing unusual and handed in his data all right. A no brainer. Two pilots, on the other hand, reported radar sightings and shredded bits of sublight communication along a certain trajectory. However, our technicians went over their ships’ black boxes and couldn’t confirm any of these sightings. There was no recording whatsoever. So we initiated post-mission psychiatric consulting for the two pilots. For both, Deep Space Dissociation Syndrome was diagnosed and a phosphorous deficit in their bodies was evident which may have led to high stress levels and concentration issues.”
“What about the missing pilot? What’s his record?”
“It was his first deep space mission, too.” Kruger made an apologetic gesture and conjured up a dismayed expression: “Well, we should have been more careful, I guess. But you are always wiser on hindsight. Still, he is an expert on Astrogeology and holds an A-class pilots’ license with many hours of short range assignments. He seemed like a good choice for the mission in the first place, since the assignment involved planetary scanning.”
Yep. Something didn’t fit in. “An expert? What’s his name?”
Kruger seemed a bit surprised by the question. He looked up from his holo panel while giving Andrew an answer: “His name is Steven Kono’ahe. He holds a PhD from the ‘Hubble And Friedman University of Alioth’ in Astrogeology and Astrochemistry. Why?”
“Nothing major, just background,” Andrew brushed the question aside. “I want to run his name through some academic databanks. See what I can come up with.”
“Well, we have an extensive dossier on him. But of course. Of course… I take it you are still interested in the mission then?”
“What exactly do you want me to do? The mission briefing on the bulletin board obviously was somewhat vague on this.”
“We want you to check the four meeting points and Kono’ahe’s itinerary in the Corona in reverse. Try and locate both ship and pilot in whatever condition and secure as much data as you can. We can only grant you a span of twelve days. After that we need to start working on the Assignment Debriefing Report for our contractors. Needless to say, a wholly completed assignment would do us more good than an incomplete one so we will also update your onboard scanners with our assignment parameters. That should enable you to help us out with some missing data along the way. So the second part of the mission is surveying three systems as well but it won’t take you far off the course. Now what do you say, Mister Gaspurr?”
Andrew took out his own small holo pad and typed in some details. “Well, I guess I would have to leave asap and I need a second man as crew. Like you said the Corona Australis is a bit off the beaten track. Twelve mission days will be melting fast. If you add another 25% to the payout I should be able to help you out in your rather inconvenient situation.”
“Spoken like a true businessman. Deal!”
“One more thing: Who are those contractors you are working for? Those who gave you this assignment in the first place?”
Kruger stood up and slipped his holo pad into his suit’s inner pocket. He offered Andrew his hand. “They are important people, citizen. Very important business people.”
‘In case of doubt,’ Andrew thought to himself, ‘assume soldiers.’
Yes, it finally added up. It seemed to be business… military business.
Back inside his Asp Explorer, the recently retrofitted AGS Intrepid, Andrew and his friend and aide Araan Masiun exchanged their thoughts and doubts about this mission. It was normal, almost customary, to never tell freelancers the whole truth about what was going on. Most contractors never had the luxury of honesty in their dealings and most freelancers accepted it freely along with a usually royal paycheck. But this mission reeked more than a bit foul.
“Soooo. Hao’s it a’goin’? You’se gots that job you’se was a’lookin’ for, Andrew?”
Araan’s rich Altairian accent was almost a pleasure after the manicured language of the Alioth Independents salesman. Boy, Andrew never got used to these folks and their posh vendors’ dialects, be it in Alliance space or elsewhere. In fact, at the moment he wished he would be elsewhere but there were urgent matters at hand and quite likely a keen military eye that would be watching every step.
“Yes. The rumors about Steven being missing in action are right. The Independents are looking for him and they know I know him. That’s the reason they wanted to hire me, not my flight hours or some dissociation syndrome bullshit. Those contractors Kruger mentioned are putting some major heat on them already so I figured why not up the ante a bit and see how serious they are. I asked for a 25 percent increase and they instantly said ‘yes’. Any questions?”
“An’those contractors? You’se gots an idea ‘bout who’se a’heatin’ them ups so much?”
“Probably military. In case of doubt: Assume soldiers. Which raises an interesting question: What do they want with survey data from a – quote: ‘dull and neglected stretch of space’?”
“Weeell, makin’ a’sure it’s a’stays this way, no?”
Andrew nodded. “Get her ready, Araan. And arm her up. We’ll also receive some survey data packages and scanner upgrades from the Independents soon. Make sure they don’t bug us. We’re going to find a friend.”