2946-11-06 - Tales from the Inbox: A Junker's Journey

Today's Tales from the Inbox continues the four part account which began with last week's Tales from the Inbox: Jewel from a Junker, which relates the events leading up to the discoveries on Vinteri.

Having recovered an old data core from an antiquated starship, Kenneth Lorenz hired the mercenary company commanded by Jacob Borisov again, this time to visit several locations indicated by the data on the device, and to see what could be found there.

Jacob paced up and down the central aisle of Taavi Bancroft, cradling a cup of acrid-tasting coffee substitute in one hand and and massaging a growing headache with the other. Though his crew lived more luxuriously than most mercenaries due to their vessel being a converted merchantman rather than a proper warship, proper coffee was still only carried in small amounts and brewed on special occasions. Despite its objectionable taste, a cup of the liquid misery dispensed by the even the worst-maintained refreshments synthesizer contained enough caffeine to wake a Terran grizzly bear from its hibernation, and Jacob hoped the stimulant would ease the throbbing in his temples for a few more hours, at least until his people came back from yet another patch of empty space designated by the crew’s eccentric client.

“What’s taking them so long?” Kenneth Lorenz asked, not for the first time, twirling his odd pendant around his fingers. Ever since Bancroft had left port, Jacob had not seen the man leave his quarters without it.

“They’re only overdue by five minutes.” Jacob had waived his usual rule against a client coming along for the operation, given the vast sums of money Lorenz was throwing around, and he’d regretted that lapse of judgement ever since. Lorenz was, the mercenary suspected, most of the reason for his headache. “I don’t usually bother getting concerned until they’re overdue by hours, Mr. Lorenz.” Really, he rarely bothered to worry about the safety of his launch pilots in general. FTL systems small enough to fit on combat launches were notoriously temperamental, and the obsolescent military-surplus units that dragged his command’s two attack boats through the cosmic fabric were if anything more troublesome than average.

“They weren’t late in coming back before.” The businessman got up from the spare console he’d claimed for himself and headed for the same beverage dispenser which had produced Jacob’s coffee.

The mercenary captain didn’t bother to point out that mechanical problems were random and unpredictable, or that the mysterious searches Lorenz was setting the pilots to perform were so vague that any object within the search area would need to be excessively and stealthily scrutinized. Even now, six weeks into working with Jacob’s crew, Lorenz didn’t trust any of the mercenaries with his “family secrets.” Other than that he was drawing coordinates from a hundred-thirty-year-old military data core which the Bancroft crew had helped to recover, along with the equally ancient ship in which it was installed, nobody knew anything except the little man’s next instruction.

If his money wasn’t plentiful and reliable, Jacob would have offloaded him with his secrets at their first port stop. As it was, Lorenz promised large sums of money and paid those sums without complaint or delay, and that made him an excellent client for a mercenary crew.

“Contact.” One of the officers announced crisply. “Two light gravitic signatures.”

“That will be them.” Jacob surmised. “Range?”

“Forty-three lisecs.”

“Then we’ll have their report in a moment.” Less than fifty light-seconds was extremely close – given the ambient conditions, the two launches could have expected to pass through their star drive hops and find themselves ten times that far from their mothership. “Send it to Mr. Lorenz’s console.” Jacob sipped his coffee and meandered across the open bridge deck to join his client there, content to merely be nearby when the slight, secretive businessman reviewed the patrol’s findings.

The console lit up less than a minute later, its projectors tracing a translucent spherical object in the air above the glassy surface. Jacob had expected his pilots to find only more empty space, so he leaned over his client’s shoulder. “What’s that?”

“A rogue planet, Captain Borisov. A cold, silent world.”

The numbers displayed near the image backed up this description. Most rogue planets were gaseous and warmed themselves somewhat above the ambient temperature of the interstellar space, but this one was, according to his pilots’ sensor data, a body of rock sheathed in the nitrogen ice that was all that remained of an atmosphere. In time immemorial, the world had probably been ejected from the system which had birthed it, damned to an eternal journey through the interstellar night. “Is this what we’re looking for?” Jacob asked.

“Probably.” Lorenz skimmed through the data. “I wasn’t expecting to find it so soon.”

Jacob wondered if merely finding the world was all Lorenz had in mind. Probably, given the hazard pay clauses in the contract, the businessman meant to get a little bit closer to the rogue world – and if Lorenz expected their exploration would be uneventful, he wouldn’t have hired mercenaries. “We’re going there.” It wasn’t a question; he already knew it.

“Once your pilots are aboard, we’ll approach the planet.” Lorenz instructed. “I’ll be taking the Hawkbat down to the surface.”


“That would be crazy, Captain.” Lorenz held up a small data-reader for Jacob. “I’ll need these.”

Taking the reader, Jacob reviewed the list on the screen. It contained five names, and a long list of equipment from the ship’s stores. “Six bodies and all that gear aboard that little scout is going to be a tight fit. Why not take the personnel shuttle?”

“It won’t fit where I need to go. I would take a larger crew if I could.”

Jacob didn’t bother to ask why. Lorenz was obviously not ready to reveal his family secrets, and mercenaries were not paid to be curious. “What sort of trouble are you expecting?”

“Depends on what I find down there.” For once, the businessman looked somewhat uneasy. “Anything is possible here, Captain.”

“We’ll go in on ready alert, with the assault boats on standby.” Jacob suggested. One of the boats’ pilots would have to be replaced by a crew backup, but that was the least of the mercenary’s concerns. “You’ll keep your comms link open at all times down there. If we lose contact, they launch. If something moves, we run for it.” The scout was equipped with a star drive, of course, but Jacob doubted even Lorenz was willing to trust his life to such an old system.

“Understood.” Lorenz stood. “Send the personnel and supplies on that list to the hangar.”

Jacob acknowledged the order with a nod, and his employer turned and disappeared into the lift. If Lorenz was going down himself, he doubted there was real risk to the team that would be crammed into the old Hawkbat scout. “Calculate a course to the object identified by the patrol.” He instructed the bridge crew as soon as Lorenz was gone. “We’ll approach on a ballistic course, no acceleration.”

The slow, stealthy ballistic course would of course irritate Lorenz, but Jacob had his reasons. If the place really was dead and harmless, a half-day of drifting approach wouldn’t make a difference to the schemes of the wealthy man, and if it wasn’t all that it seemed, the cautious course would give his crew a better chance to spot the danger.

“Any unknown we run into in the vicinity of the rogue is to be assumed hostile.” Jacob added. “We take no chances.”

With that, he headed for his office. It was time to do some research into the personnel Lorenz had requested; perhaps in their dossiers, some clue to the businessman’s purpose might be found.

- - - - - - - - - -

Two shifts later, as Taavi Bancroft eased into orbit around the frozen, starless planet, Jacob watched the three-dimensional plot with growing agitation. For a lifeless rogue, the object had a remarkably lively orbital space, with dozens of minor, asteroid-like satellites large enough to have been detected by stellar occlusion alone. Jacob could only speculate as to the number of much smaller objects which an active sensor sweep might find. Even if there was no active trouble to be found, he knew an orbital zone with that many unknowns was a dangerous place to park a ship as large as Bancroft.

As soon as the helmsman declared that the ship was in as safe and stable an orbit as it was likely to find, Jacob left the command deck and headed down toward the ship’s cavernous hangar, where his client was preparing his antiquated scout ship for departure. Kenneth Lorenz’s money was good, and that was the only reason that he had not called off the whole affair. The derelict seemed to be a perfect place for an ambush.

As their captain approached, most of the personnel milling curiously around Lorenz’s Hawkbat melted away to their duties, unconsciously wanting to look busy while Jacob could see them. He hadn’t come to enforce crew discipline, but they couldn’t possibly know that.

“Captain Borisov.” The wealthy middle-aged man showed no trace of the frustration he’d vented at Jacob’s decision to approach the rogue world stealthily and slowly; his mind was, by all indications, on what lay ahead. “What brings you down here?”

“We’re orbital, and the crew is on alert.” Jacob threaded his way through the dissolving group of onlookers. It was time to give Lorenz the second piece of what would be regarded as bad news. “My job on the bridge is done, so I’ll be standing in for Oliver Gunnarsen on your landing party.”

“What?” Lorenz glared back. “I chose these people very carefully from your crew. Every one of them has-”

“You picked Gunnarsen because of his experience with mining explosives.” At the mention of his name, the square-jawed security officer poked his head out of the Hawkbat’s personnel hatch, and Jacob beckoned for him to come out. “Oliver, tell Mr. Lorenz who on the crew you’d pick for a dangerous mining job.”

“You mean, down there on that rogue?” Gunnarsen was clearly confused, but he played along, turning to address the businessman. “Well, Farmer and Uzun would be good choices, but everyone knows the captain here spent years as a prospector on Thirty Below. If he’s not needed on the bridge, you want him.”

“Not you?” The businessman was taken aback.

“Me? Mr. Lorenz, I was an asteroid miner. If you want something blown up in anything but zero-zero conditions, you’d better pick someone else.”

Jacob held up his hands. “I don’t care about your secrets, Mr. Lorenz, but the safety of my crew is at stake if you plan on blowing anything up down there.” Even Lorenz, who’d never been within a hundred kilometers of any sort of active mine, would be able to imagine how mining explosives would behave very differently when atmospheric pressure and gravity could not be ignored. Add to that the volatile nature of the nitrogen and methane ices that covered the starless planet’s surface, and it was clear that trusting Gunnarsen’s limited experience to set mining charges down there was likely to lead to disaster. Jacob was glad he’d spent half a shift determining the likely reasons for each of Lorenz’s personnel decisions, and also quietly glad he had such a convenient excuse to join the landing party. “Either I go down with you, or the explosives stay up here.”

“Fine.” Exasperated, Lorenz shooed Gunnarsen away. “Get on board, Captain. We’ll be leaving as soon as your hangar crew gives us clearance.”

Jacob picked up one of the remaining crates sitting on the periphery of the landing pad and did as he was instructed. One way or another, he was committed to uncovering Kenneth Lorenz’s family secrets, if they indeed were hidden in such a forsaken place.