2949-06-22 – Tales from the Inbox: The Jericho Gamble 

Despite the risk of a power surge in the systems Varinia Villa pushed the battered gravitic drive unit of Diane Dragović almost a quarter-gee past the safe limit as soon as the little ship cleared the tangle of battlefield debris. 

Hugh Apperlo looked up from the sensor plot on his own console when a single piece of wreckage thrown clear of the field glanced off the dorsal hull above the command deck. Since the collision didn’t cause any fresh warning lights to glow on his board, he tried not to pay it any mind. With only the crudest of shear-barrier screening unit, Dragović should not have risked acceleration so close to the debris, but he didn’t question the decision, when compared with all alternatives. 

“Any sign of them yet?” Varinia didn’t look up from her console.  

“Not yet.” Hugh trusted his companion to fly the borrowed ship, but he wished he could have helm control all the same. He figured another percentage point on the engines probably wouldn’t cause a power surge, and every meter per second counted when pirates might show up at any moment. 

Though Varinia didn’t say anything, Hugh knew she had more reason to fear pirates than he did. After all, it had been pirates who had taken her off a struggling Silver Strand subsistence world at a young age and sold her into the creative hells of the chattel black-market, and pirates had been the buyers who had seen fit to modify her body until the average citizen of the Reach couldn’t look at her without wincing in disgust. True, the Strand’s brand of piracy had always been crueler than any other, but brigands capitalizing on the war-torn Coreward Frontier were probably not much better. 

The sensor plot chirped, and Hugh glanced down to see a trip of red pips appearing at the edge of sensor range. “There they are. Three small hulls... Looks like survey runabouts.” 

“Time to intercept?” Varinia didn’t need to ask if Dragović had built enough speed to beat the pirates to the edge of the system. Their ship could only accelerate past four gees by risking an electrical overload, and even the most worn-out surveyor would be able to double that, at least in short bursts. 

“Twenty-four minutes.” 

Varinia didn’t reply right away. Hugh heard a quiet tinkling noise, like wind chimes in a gentle breeze, and glanced over to his partner to see her visibly trembling, the artificial spines sprouting from her skin scraping against one another. Despite knowing how terrified she was, Hugh couldn’t help but notice how pleasant the sound was. 

“I’ll go check the star drive.” Hugh stood and turned toward the steep stairs leading back and down into the rest of the ship. Old Xiou-Edwards drives, unlike newer star drives with safer designs, could be activated within a star’s gravitational shadow, but they tended to explode spectacularly if they were, especially on a vessel with antique, corroded power distribution conduits. 

“No.” Varinia locked eyes with Hugh. She too knew about the explosive properties of their outdated star drive, and she probably also knew that Hugh would chance a surrender, if he were aboard alone. “Not yet.” 

“Do you have a better idea?” 

“I’m pressurizing the bay.” Varinia flipped a few switches. “The Jericho is upside down on the deck with its nose facing mostly toward the doors. See if it’s any help.” 

“Vari, that wreck isn’t going to help us.” Hugh a fool’s errand intended to get him off the command deck when he saw it. Whatever Varinia had planned, she didn’t want him to be there to tell her to stop, and he knew exactly what that meant about her plan. “There’s got to be something else.” 

Varinia sighed, put the helm into autopilot mode, and stood to face Hugh. “Trust me, Hugh.” 

Hugh sighed and nodded. Despite fearing he knew exactly what she was going to do, he trusted Varinia Villa with his life, and knew she trusted him with hers. If she thought she knew what the best move was, he’d learned to trust her judgement above his own. “Whatever gets us out of this.” He tried to put as much emphasis on the word “us” as humanly possible. 

Varinia pushed Hugh toward the stairway and spun back to her console in one fluid motion, crystals scattering the flickering illumination from the overhead panels. “Go.”  

Hugh raced down to the main cargo bay, reaching the bulkhead door just as its display went from orange to yellow, indicating acceptable pressure on the far side. Hugh quickly shut the pressure doors in the corridor behind him, then overrode the caution indicators to open the bay. 

His ears popped as the hatch opened, and the air within smelled metallic and burnt as soon as he hurried inside and slid down the ladder to the main cargo deck. Given the twisted holes punched in the arrowhead shape occupying most of the space, the smell was only too understandable. 

“Try getting in through the damaged section.” Varinia, watching his progress on the security system, suggested via Hugh’s earpiece. “The crew compartment would be roughly in the center.” 

Hugh grabbed a wrist-light from a locker on one bulkhead and clambered up the angled side of the Jericho’s hull, glad of the hexagonal handholds generously scattered across the strike craft’s hull. A quartet of smoothy-fared openings near the bow were probably the business end of some sort of laser or plasma cannon, but he knew they would be of no use. Even if the Jericho’s power plant could be restarted, the control systems would be beyond his ability to understand in less than twenty minutes. 

Instead, as Hugh edged his way between the scorched, razor-sharp edges of the craft’s composite armor paneling, he hoped to find his way into the primary munitions bay. If that space was still intact, and the Jericho hadn’t fired off its arsenal of guided weapons before being hit, perhaps he could trick something there into locking onto their attackers. 

“How’s it going up there?” Hugh squeezed his broad shoulders into the scorched innards of the Incarnation ship. If she thinking of doing what he was afraid of, he wanted to keep her talking, and so dissuade her of the idea. 

“They’re closing.” Varinia’s voice sounded shaky and higher-pitched than usual. “I’m going to try to hail and bluff them.” 

“Don’t lie to me, Vari. You’re going to try to deal with them.” 

“Hugh, I would never sell you out to-” 

“Stars around, woman, you think I would believe that of you? I know what you think you have to do. Don’t.” Hugh pushed past a tangle of loose cabling suspending a series of broken crystalline components in the middle of his path and spied the shattered exterior of what had probably been the crew compartment.  

After peering inside this and finding unrecognizable, charred, dessicated lumps dangling from the straps of a trio of recumbent chairs, he turned his attention to looking for a way into the munitions bay below their deck, which was now overhead. Surely there would be a means for the crew to escape a damaged craft, and through the bay would be the easiest method. 

“It’s all my fault, Hugh.” 

“Nothing’s your damned fault, Vari. We rolled the dice together. They weren’t in our favor. We'll deal with what comes next.” Hugh spied what he was looking for – an iris-like hatch in the center, between the three seats. Its electronic controls were dead, but Hugh quickly wheeled it open with a manual-crank handle provided for that purpose. “And we’ll deal with it together.” 

“What about-” 

“I’m in the munitions bay.” Hugh, with one shuddering glance at the unrecognizable corpses around him, grabbed the edges of the overhead opening and lifted himself into the space above. Playing his light through the compartment, he was gratified to see no less than six sinister oblongs hanging in a rotary rack forward. The second rack, behind the hatch, was empty. 

Varinia seemed only too eager to latch onto this change of topic. “How’s it look?” 

“Promising.” Hugh braced his knees on the hatch and pushed up on the munitions bay doors over his head. They didn’t budge. If the bay was to be used as an escape route for the crew, there was probably a manual release somewhere, but he saw no sign of it. “Whatever these are aren’t very big. I could probably haul them to the airlock by hand.” 

“Be careful.” 

Hugh played his light across the computer-readable code plates which passed for warning placards on Incarnation technology. “You don’t need to tell me twice.” Gingerly, he reached out to run his fingers behind one of the oblong shapes, looking for the release catch that would let an armorer remove unused ordinance when the strike-craft returned to its mothership. 

This week we return to the account submitted by people claiming to be Hugh Apperlo and Varinia Villa. Despite many messages from readers claiming to be able to confirm or falsify this story, at this time I am no closer to validating or invalidating it than I was at this time last week. 

I have however learned that the terms of the anonymous bounty offered for provision of Jericho wreckage I mentioned last week were particularly interesting – they read more like a corporate contract than such documents normally do. While this could have multiple explanations, it seems only too possible to me that one of the major strike-craft manufacturers is trying to get an edge over its competition by reverse-engineering Incarnation tech. 

As things have been pretty quiet here since the last attempt to relieve Margaux, I have plenty of time to keep digging into this, and I plan to do so.