The Missing (Part One) - An E:D Horror Mystery

It all started when I went to Hutton Orbital.

It had seemed an innocuous enough – if somewhat lengthy – journey to undertake. Since earning my Elite Exploration wings from the Pilots Federation a year ago, I’d always had the idea of a trip to Hutton in my mind. I was well aware it was a rite of passage for spacers, especially explorer types; I’d just not gotten around to it yet. But I fancied some rares trading, and I had a free agenda, so… screw it, I thought, pointing my favourite ship, Morrigan in the direction of Alpha Centauri. Just go for it.

90 minutes after warping into the system, I decelerated, dropped and docked. Even though I’d had plenty of opportunities to stretch my legs by wandering the corridors of my Fer-de-Lance during the long straight flight from the main star, I needed some exercise. And besides, you don’t fly nearly a quarter of a light year in supercruise to just turn around again. I definitely needed a drink.

Well, the bar at Hutton more than lived up to its reputation. It’s known as the "Hot Bar", for the Hutton Orbital Truckers who founded it, and who still drink there, not because its ambient temperature is any higher than average (it's quite pleasant), or because there's anything especially sexy about it (there isn't). That said, most outpost saloons are depressing, dingy places with a miserable barkeep and an even more miserable selection of cheap and nasty local liquors, but this place… this place had charm. A weird charm to be sure, but a definite charm nonetheless. Atmospheric lighting from subtle locations illuminated the fascinating collections that adorned the walls. A nameplate from a Cobra Mk I, a whole alcove tiled with tessellated astrogation consoles from various ships, and repurposed chaff launchers fashioned into uplighters; the overall effect was of the most welcoming and comfortable junkyard one could imagine. More importantly, a set of hollowed torpedo casings mounted behind the bar housed the most incredible collection of liquors from across the galaxy. At a glance I recognised Lavian brandy, Eranin pearl whisky, Gerasian Gueuze beer... and yes, there it was – Leestian Evil Juice. From the colour I could see it was the real stuff too, not the weaker ‘tourist strength’ drink sold in the tat shops and chain bars on Lucas. Someone evidently knew their booze – or rather, knew that any spacers who'd made the trek out here would feel they'd earned a proper drink. Braben knows I certainly did. And I knew what of.

The barman sauntered over and threw me a warm smile - another difference from most outpost bars and their permanently surly staff – and looked almost as if he were appraising me. I returned his gaze. “First time at Hutton” he said. It wasn't a question. I inclined my head in acknowledgement. “You'll be wanting the gin then, I suppose.” Again, not a question, but not unfriendly. "The gin it is, friend", I nodded. He took down a strange looking vessel from the shelf - a large mug that looked like it had been hammered out from some kind of ship component - possibly a frame shift drive plate - and poured out a reasonable measure of the oily liquid.

Centauri Mega Gin is renowned throughout the little pocket of space we call "The Bubble" for three things. One - it's almost pure alcohol, but with the subtlest of flavours; flavours that hang almost like a fading memory on your tongue. Two - the distillation process is a secret almost as closely guarded as the location of Raxxla. And three - it gets you seriously hammered. I wasn't about to go crazy, though. I wanted to be able to fly after this. And although I grew up on Leesti, and had been sneaking little hits of Evil Juice since I was a teenage girl, I knew better than to jump feet first into an unknown liquor bottle.

I took a cautious sip. The burn was perfect. It evaporated as it slid down my tongue, leaving in its wake just the gentlest suggestions of remembered flavours - sweet but sharp berries, a passing aroma of citrus, the faintest hint of herbs...

Suddenly a sharp little bark pulled me out of my reverie.

“Excuse me, Commander!” I heard the voice and looked round to see a small rat-faced man shuffling up behind me. His sallow cheeks were grey and stubbled, and what little hair remained on his head was straggly, lank and plastered to his scalp. I stood up from my stool and realised that I stood a good 10 centimetres taller than him. I’m tall for a woman – 173 cm in my bare feet –but this guy was particularly diminutive. Still, I knew better than to think this didn’t make him a threat.

“Yes?” I replied.
“You are Leesti?” he asked.
“LeestiAN”, I corrected. “Leesti is usually considered a pejorative term for natives of the planet”.
But then, I thought, he must have known this since he was evidently waiting for me; this must have been deliberate, a calculated effort to rile me, to put me on the back foot. And besides, his clipped vowels and prolonged “s” sounds betrayed his Lavian heritage. You don’t grow up in the Old Worlds without learning the socio-cultural sensitivities of your neighbours. Nice try, a**hole.
“Oh yes, of course”, he said quickly. “Please accept my apologies”.
I nodded. “What can I do for you, Mister…?”
“Barton” he hissed. “You can call me Barton”. No way was that his real name, especially coming from Lave; but then I wasn’t expecting someone like this to use their real name. Fine, whatever. “OK, Barton” I smiled, “What’s so important that you have to interrupt-“ I winked at the barman “- the finest glass of gin this side of the Perseus Transit?”

“Well commander, I represent certain… parties”. The pause was obviously intended to convey import, or menace or both. Probably both; they often come together. “They have need of a pilot of your experience and skills”.

“If it's skill you're after", I said knocking back another two fingers of the gin, “it seems to me you'd be better off recruiting somewhere like Alioth or Sol. Hanging out at the most remote station in the bubble seems a little... impractical.”

He smiled, baring rodent like yellow incisors – long and sharp looking, with well-receded gums. "Very well, Commander Calques" he continued, "I can see you have little tolerance for procrastination. We have need of you".

"Now we're getting somewhere", I replied. "But are you really going to make me ask why me - and why here and now?"

He motioned to a booth in a corner of the bar. "If you please, Commander". I nodded for a refill and followed him over. We slid into the semi-seclusion, away from the few other patrons.

"Will you tell me what this is all about now?" I asked.

He sighed. "I was told to wait here for a woman matching your description - tall, blonde and LeestiAN" - he emphasised the final syllable in his unpleasant hiss - "and flying an ice-white combat vessel. I was instructed to deliver a data chip to you, along with a message". The bony fingers darted into his jacket and emerged with the chip, which he slid across the table to me.

"I really don't see what thi-" I began, but he cut me off.

"Please, Commander. I fear there is little time. Just listen for now. You are familiar with Mastopolos Mining Corporation, yes?"

"Of course"

"Then you know they control the operations in the Leesti system"

"Yes". I sighed. "Look, is this a test of my knowledge of economics of my homeworld, or do you actually have a point?"

"The point is, Commander, that Mastopolos have recently been investigating the possibility of mining Leesti 2 for Niobium. Last week they sent a team of their best spectral geologists on an exploratory mission to analyse the planet's surface. Apparently, everything seemed normal for the first day or so, and then..." he narrowed his eyes and looked down at the table, "...strange things began to happen."

I felt a growing sense of unease, which I couldn't just put down to the gin. "Strange things? Like what?"

"Equipment disappearing. Full SRV fuel tanks draining overnight. Unexplained sounds. The logs of the head geologist are on that chip I just gave you, but I must warn you they make for somewhat - " he swallowed, looking even more rodent like, if that were possible, "uncomfortable viewing".

The unease intensified, starting to coagulate inside my stomach, to form into a tangible knot of tension as my mind assembled the pieces of information. I knew what I had to ask, and I dreaded the answer.

"And the geologists?" Oh God, don't let this go the way I think it's going. His eyes flicked up to meet mine again. "They are... gone, Commander".

"Gone? Do you mean...?"

"We don't know. When communications were lost, an investigation team was sent. The camp was deserted, there was no sign of a struggle or fight, but all life support systems were deactivated. We think they have been taken, but by who, and for what purpose, we have no idea. This is why we have come to you, Commander Calques".

"But why? I'm no investigator or detective. I'm just a pilot".

And then, suddenly, as if the curtains of my mind had been yanked back, and the light flooded in, I saw it. I saw why he had come to me. Oh, no. No. NO. "Who was the head geologist on this expedition?" I managed to whisper, my voice trembling.

Barton swallowed hard and shuffled in his seat; but to give this strange little man his due, he looked me dead in the eye as he said it.

"I'm sorry, Commander. The head geologist was Doctor Jaxa Calques. Your sister."



To be continued...

(original post at https://inara.cz/cmdr-logbook/26593/37150/ )
 
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