Norman Braider looked down at the landscape around Idyllia on Theta Librae III as the shuttle punched through the atmosphere. The settlement sat on the shore of a great winding river that looked now like a dead python sprawled over the plains, its dark belly turned skyward. Grim. The situation below was coloring his thoughts in unexpected ways. He’d slept fine last night, but he was exhausted anyway. Norman spent the rest of the descent deep in thought, but when they touched down he couldn’t recall what it was he’d been thinking about. He put on a facemask and disembarked.
It was chilly, but it was a clear blue day with no breeze. Carla was waiting there to meet him, looking serious and entirely professional—it was her only look. “Thanks for coming on such short notice. You don’t need the mask. I have a car waiting; this way.” She turned and started briskly away. Straight to business, as usual. He chased after her.
The driver took them slowly through the streets of Idyllia, gently swerving to avoid the bodies. Carla brought him up to speed, but she spoke quickly, and Norman was distracted. He couldn’t help but look out the windows. There had been something in the water, something that hadn’t been there for the four years since Idyllia’s founding. It was a powerful hallucinogen and neurotoxin according to the initial reports, one that slipped past detectors and filters and disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived.
“So, you’re treating this as a mass murder then?” asked Norman.
Carla blinked and cocked her head. “No. What gave you that impression?”
“I thought you wanted me to coordinate a manhunt. We could ID all the bodies in the settlement, cross reference them against the population records, and then see who is missing.”
She smoothed the folds of her pants. “We already did that. Everyone’s accounted for. It’s not a manhunt I need; it’s an expedition. We believe the compound is naturally occurring somewhere upstream. Perhaps it was introduced into the river by a mudslide, or a forest fire. Melting permafrost. We’re not sure.”
Norman tried to reach whatever conclusion she clearly thought he should have intuited, but it eluded him. “So you want me to destroy the source?”
The car came to a stop outside the settlement’s hospital. Carla frowned. “No. I want—we want—you to isolate it so it can be reproduced, perhaps synthetically.”
His mouth hung open. “Have you lost your mind?” he shouted.
“Come with me,” she said. “I have more to show you.” She got out of the car and headed off without waiting for him to follow.
“What have I gotten myself into?” he wondered aloud.
“I’m not authorized to brief you, sir,” said the driver.
Norman looked at him incredulously in the reflection of the rearview mirror, and then got out of the car and hurried after Carla.