“Sometimes things happen. Stuff disappears. Cargo, ships...people. Doesn’t mean there is anything nefarious to it. It just happens. It’s a strange galaxy.”

The wisdom comes from the mouth of Cargomaster Clint Dwopleke of Meyrink Oasis, the LP 617-37 system, planet 4a. His office, sitting beneath Pad 2, is typical of a lunar base: a boxy, low ceilinged subterranean prefab that lacks all decor accept for silver gray HVAC ductwork running across one wall, and red and black electrical conduits covering large swaths of the remaining walls and ceiling, a design typical of those produced by the frost-covered mega-assembler complexes of Neptunic Comfortworks. Dwopleke’s desk sits in a corner and is intermittently lost in shadow as the overhead lighting flickers and occasionally buzzes in annoyance. His desk is covered by scattered papers, scribbled-upon manilla folders, a grimy three ring binder, and a humming smartstation that casts a flickering neon-blue glow across Dwopleke’s oft smiling, crease-lined face. He shrugs his bowed shoulders. “Never saw him again. Poof! Into thin air,” he concludes, his words inadvertently underscored by the office’s HVAC system kicking on with a hiss of recirculated air.

The last time Arch Hyperion was seen

It is an answer I have heard frequently since trying to learn of the fate of AH-183X, the Pilot Federation’s registration number of the Diamondback Scout, Arch Hyperion, that belonged to the now missing Cmdr. Stanley Derkaz. The vessel, last seen in a still image captured by a Five Points Syndicate’s traffic monitoring buoy 900 light seconds from Meyrink Oasis, was scheduled to make a delivery to Hilmer’s Gateway, some 6.6 light years away in 59 Virginis. Derkaz never made it. But his cargo did.

“He was a nervous sort; I could see that right off,” responds Dwopleke to my question about meeting Derkaz. “When I brought the pallet of biowaste to his hangar to be loaded into the belly of his Scout, I could see his tall, stoop-shouldered frame pacing at the top of the gangway. He seemed to be in a hurry to get going.” I ask Dwopleke if that was atypical for the pilots he meets. Before answering my question, Dwopleke digs into his coveralls and produces a gaspar. He twists the narrow waist, bringing the tip to a bright blue glow, and inhales the vapors. With a relaxed exhalation, he replies, “No, Not for traders. For them, time really is money. But this was something more than an attitude of commercial impatience. It was like he was anxious to leave before...I don’t know. Something happened.” Dwopleke pauses a moment, then adds, “But again, probably nothing. I wouldn’t waste any time on it as spacers are an odd lot as it is.” He laughs.

Perhaps the cargomaster is right. It is easy to conclude that Derkaz was just the victim of piracy; his ship interdicted, his cargo stolen, and Derkaz and his vessel consigned to the nearest stellar body or gas giant to hide the evidence. The pirates sell the cargo at the nearest black market where it finally finds its way onto the open market. End of story. It is a logical theory. But it has two big problems. First, Five Points Syndicate's system security never received a reported crime burst from Derkaz’s Scout, nor did the corporate security forces that patrol Alchemy Den’s 59 Virginis. What is even more perplexing is Derkaz ’s cargo: Arch Hyperion left Meyrink Oasis with six tons of biowaste, a cheap fertilizer popular with fledgling colonies such as 59 Virginis 4. However, upon arrival at Hilmer’s Gateway, six cargo containers bearing the same serial numbers as those that left Meyrink Oasis now contained mechanical scrap. What happened to the biowaste?

“Biowaste, that is, organic fertilizer, is often used as a poor man’s explosive,” responds Captain Theo Crakstic of Alchemy Den’s Security Force. “You ask me, those six tons of biowaste wound up triggering that explosion on 59 Virginis 4.” He is referring to a mysterious explosion that wrecked the planet’s main spaceport administration center five weeks ago.

Captain Crakstic’s office enjoys a grand view of 59 Virginis 4. As a senior member of the controlling faction, his office is located in one of the topmost sections of Hilmer’s Gateway fourteen sides, something that entitles him to a window view, the prerogative of successful executives throughout time. He stands from his oblong, high gloss white desk - the captain is quick to point out that it is constructed of birch harvested from Virginis 4 and is continually polished by nanites - and turns to look out of the space station’s large concave window, partially obscuring the blue orb that is 59 Virginis 4 and its vast oceans in the process. “I never truly believed that the explosion that devastated Jebel Port was an accident. It had to be terrorism.” Bright overhead spotlighting makes the captain’s blue uniform appear to glow, something that results in its hue being cast on the polished, cream-colored curved walls that enclose his office. The impressive effect must be calculated. Captain Jurgen’s turns back to me as I lounge in an overstuffed, high-back chair near his desk, grateful for the spacious opulence of his office after experiencing the confined, rustic environment of Dwopleke’s subterranean realm. “ It was an attack designed to shake our hold on Virginis 4.” After a pause, “At least, that is what I believe. Others...disagree.” Those others would be the governing council. In the wake of the explosion, the council was quick to label the incident “accident” despite the protestations of many in the government including, presumably, Capt. Crakstic.

The captain taps the top of his gleaming desk twice; an orange holopane springs into existence, its projector cleverly hidden in the desk’s surface. He taps the air a few times and waves a hand now and then. Satisfied, Crakstic waves his hand one more time and his desk expels what appears to be a business card with a name and the holographic seal of Crakstic’s office. He offers it to me. “Take this. Present it to the VP of Operations, Rottinger Van Rotulus, on V4. He’ll give you more info.”

59 Virginis 4

I book passage on a dropship to seek out Crakstic’s contact. After an uneventful departure from Hilmer’s Gateway, Neil Smith, the dropship operator, invites me into the cockpit for the final descent. When I greet him as “Commander Smith,” he is quick to correct. “Those deep space flyboys are called ‘commander’; dropship pilots are ‘captain’ because our job is more akin to being an ol’ fashioned riverboat captain than it is to being a fighter pilot. Those ‘commanders’ wouldn’t last a minute in my gig.”

The cockpit of the drop shuttle is a cramped affair. Panels filled with backlit switches and dials embrace the pilot from all directions, while two small, forward-mounted white-on-black flat screen displays cast an ethereal light into the dark cockpit, one that makes Smith’s typically pale spacer face take on an even more pallid appearance. As I take a seat in a back corner of the cockpit, I notice that unlike traditional deep space craft this dropship exchanges a flight stick for a flight yoke. “That’s why we’re more akin to riverboat captains. Descending through a thick atmosphere is like navigating the currents and eddies of a swift running river. We need something meatier than a stick.” As if to underscore his point, the vessel suddenly shudders. I look out the front of the craft but can only see rushing gray clouds and windswept droplets of water crawling their way across the duraglass. An electronic chirping sound begins to emanate in rhythm with a flashing red telltale to the captain’s left. Without looking, he removes his left hand from the controls, the knuckles white from gripping the yoke, and quickly flips a switch to a downward position, silencing the audible alarm but not the flashing light. “We lost an ablative tile on the left strut.” He replaces his hand onto the yoke, which is now visibly shuddering from turbulence. “Routine,” he smiles at me in reply to my questioning face. “Things break when forcibly parting two atmospheres of pressure.” I buckle into my jump seat quickly, something that brings a hearty laugh from Smith.

Despite tempestuous weather - I soon learn that a typhoon is approaching the continent - Capt. Smith brings the dropship down gently at Jebel Port. A drenching downpour greets the passengers as we deplane, and I am grateful to see a waiting shuttle bus ready to take us to the main terminal. However, before I can board it, a sleek luxury car pulls alongside me. A high gloss, cherry red door swings upward, unleashing streams of silvery rainwater that spill from its edges. A mid-fifties, well-attired gentleman can be seen reclining in the vehicle's’ interior. He beckons me within and I gratefully accept the chance to get out of the cold rain and the two atmospheres of pressure that were already making their presence felt.

The interior of the luxury car is pleasantly heated and delicately lit from a single overhead canopy light that casts a warm glow; it is a striking contrast to the gray day outside. “I’m Rottinger Van Rotulus, VP of Ops. Captain Crakstic told me you’d be arriving.” I am briefly taken aback by this as I didn’t inform the captain about when I planned to leave Hilmer’s Gateway. The gentleman reads my mind. “He is in charge of security, after all,” he smiles. “Let’s take a look at the scene of the crime, shall we?”

I see the back of the driver’s head in the front seat. It bobs quickly, and soon the car stirs itself to life and we are heading away from the tarmac towards the perimeter of the field where the original flight operations center of Jebel Port once stood. We are soon there, and I can see that all that now remains of it is a twisted, fire blackened husk that drips in the rain. “Tell me that is the result of a lightning strike,” Van Rotulus grumbles. “That’s not lightning, that’s lawlessness.”

The destruction does seem remarkably complete, even for V4’s famed mega-lightning. I ask who he believes was responsible. “Who else?” he asks with incredulity. “LHS 351 PLC, of course. They’ve been trying to drag our independent system into the Alliance for some time now.”

I begin to understand the rationale for a cover-up concerning the destruction of Jebel’s operations’ center. If this was an act of terrorism, Alchemy Den needs to tread lightly. If the explosion was an Alliance plot, Alchemy Den is in no position to challenge the might of a superpower. And if it wasn’t, the mere suggestion that it was an Alliance plot could be enough to trigger an angry military response from them. It was a no-win situation for the minor corporation that is Alchemy Den. Better off just downplaying the entire thing.

“Commander Derkaz would seem to be an agent of the Alliance.” As if to emphasize Van Rotulus’s point, a peal of thunder suddenly vibrates through the car, followed by an increased tempo of rain impacting the top of the vehicle. “Or a mercenary, anyway.” Van Rotulus removes his gold spectacles and rubs his face with a silken handkerchief he has pulled from his blazer.

I ask the obvious question: Why make this case now when the governing council has already issued their official “accident” pronouncement?

“Because such villany must not go unanswered,” Van Rotulus angrily retorts. “There are more than a few of us who aren’t cowed by the threat of an Alliance response. Of course, we are not mad men; we don’t seek an unwinnable war. However, there are ways of striking back while minimizing risk. A commensurate response, if you will. Some of us believe that their are,” Rotulus pauses, his mouth soundlessly seeks the right word, “...democratic opportunities available in neighboring systems. Plans have already been drawn. We just await the courage of our superiors to give us the go signal.” Van Rotulus fishes around in his suit vest and comes out with a large cigar. He lights it with a gold lighter that utilizes a tightbeam laser, and begins contentedly puffing away, the car’s filtration system speedily removing the smoke if not the smell. “Apparently, one outrage will not be enough. We will need to await the other.”

Startled by his choice of words, I ask him to clarify if he meant “the other” or “another” attack. Van Rotulus’s eyes dart about a bit but eventually settle on the smouldering, cherry red tip of his cigar. “Isn’t it obvious?” he eventually asks without looking at me. “A lack of response will only encourage the ruffians. There will be more attacks. And then we will be forced to respond.” Van Rotulus taps the back right shoulder of his driver and tells him to drop me off at the main terminal. The driver again acknowledges his orders with a wordless bob of his head.

When we arrive, the rain is sheeting across the port. Van Rotulus wishes me well and soon sends me on my way. His driver leaves the dry comfort of the car’s interior to hold an umbrella over my head as I make my way to the portico of the terminal. Before I can thank him, the driver turns on his heels and hurries back to his charge. It is only as I watch the driver bend to enter the driver’s compartment that I notice he is an unexpectedly tall fellow with rounded shoulders, one who moves with a quick step.

As I sip a steaming cup of coffee in the terminal’s cafe, I realize that I am no close to resolving the mystery of Arch Hyperion than I was when I first started. In fact, I feel things are more muddled than ever. But I didn’t really expect to resolve the mystery. As Dwopleke remarked, it is a strange galaxy. Things happen.