2946-11-27 - Tales from the Inbox: The Prisoner of Vincennes

The armored door simply refused to submit to the will of its new master. Even industrial cutting torches, of the same kind used by shipbreaking crews to slice through the armored hulls of scrapped warships, failed to do more than etch its surface. For the two weeks it had taken to navigate Lyla Vincennes from the auctioneer’s yard at Nova Paris to her center of operations at Herakles, Petia had on more than one occasion wandered down to the sealed portal to wonder at its mystery contents.

Now, of course, Petia had the upper hand over the vexing barrier. Under her supervision, two technicians prepared a nano-demolition charge, configuring the payload carefully with a sample of the durable door’s alloy. She tapped her foot impatiently, but it didn’t seem to hurry them; that was probably for the best. Petia knew well enough what happened when nano-demolition went wrong.

At last, the two techs pressed the charge against the door and stepped back. “Boss?” One of them asked.

“Whenever you’re ready, Zenais.” Petia tried not to hate him for making her tell him once again to remove the obstacle, and didn’t entirely succeed. She’d made quite clear that she wanted the door gone, so she could see what was behind it.

The tech jabbed a control on his wrist unit, and the lumpen charge flattened out and seemed to vanish. Petia hadn’t expected a climactic explosion, but she couldn’t help but pace back and forth as the nanomachines worked their way into the armored alloy of the door and undid its durable structure. The techs fidgeted nervously, glancing at their status monitors to view the progress of the demolition.

All at once, the heavy, impossibly strong barrier crumbled in on itself, as if transmuted instantly into a pile of loose gravel. Petia stepped backwards as loose pieces of crumbled armor bounced down the corridor toward her boots, and let the technicians go first, sending the deactivation signal to the nanomachines and setting out collectors to retrieve the expensive demolition swarm.

Petia couldn’t wait for them to finish; she strode past them and peered into the darkness beyond. “Lights.” She instructed, but venerable Lyla Vincennes’s computer did not respond, and no lights came on. With a long-suffering sigh, she activated the emergency light function of her wrist unit and swept its wan beam through the compartment that the ship’s former owners had gone through so much effort to seal.

The only thing in the room was a single metal crate two meters across, bolted securely to the deck. Based on the thick layer of dust covering everything, Petia guessed it hadn’t been touched for years – perhaps for most of Vincennes’s career. Visions of long-hidden treasures dancing in her mind, she wasted no time undoing the three latches holding the hinged front of the container closed. Visions of the lost Ladeon Hoard danced in her mind as she yanked the crate open, its aged hinges shrieking in protest.

Inside, she found no treasure. Huddled in the corner of the two-meter-long cargo crate, there was only the hunched and pitiable figure of a man, cuffed and shackled with chains of the same durable alloy as the door. His face was gaunt and unshaven, his skin pale, and his dark eyes stared into Petia’s faint flashlight beam with a level and unperturbed expression, as if he had expected her at exactly that moment.

It took Petia a few moments to realize what was so wrong about the prisoner’s situation. Though it was obvious he’d been there a long time, there was no trace of food or water in his makeshift cell. How long had he gone without food or water? It was, she realized, a month at minimum. He should have been only a dessicated corpse.

“Who are you?” She managed to ask weakly. Perhaps, she thought, “what” was a more appropriate question. No human should have been still alive after so long. Under the light of her flashlight beam, his face seemed vaguely familiar.

After staring blankly back at her for two full seconds, the prisoner dropped his eyes to the floor, saying nothing. Whether that was because he did not wish to give his identity, or because he no longer remembered, Petia couldn’t be sure – he didn’t seem insane, and he didn’t have the subtly uncanny stillness associated with the horror of an automaton designed to appear human.

“Who are you?” She repeated, more forcefully.

Still, the prisoner offered no answer. He merely raised his head once more, looking her straight in the eyes, as if demanding that she either free him of his bonds, or depart and seal the door once more. Though he still didn’t speak, she sensed that he was merely holding his voice until she decided whether to free him.

Though surprised at how tempting it was to seal him in until he talked, Petia hurried back to her demolition team for tools and assistance. Though taken aback at the sight, they hurried to help, and soon the man was freed of the durable shackles. Despite his drawn and weak appearance, he was too heavy for Petia to move alone – with Zenais, she managed to haul him upright, and carry him out of the sealed compartment into the well-lit corridor.

“Thank you.” The man whispered, shutting his eyes against the light.

“Don’t mention it.” Petia, straining to hold him up. As she had suspected, he could speak without trouble. “How did you get in there?”

The man took his time answering, raising his head to look around as his eyes adjusted. “Treachery, as usual.” He eventually offered, just as quietly as before.

“As-” Petia was interrupted from asking what he meant by “as usual” when, with a sudden surge of unexpected strength, the man swept both Zenais and her aside, knocking them to the deck. “Thank you, Petia.” Just as she realized that she hadn’t given the prisoner her name, he was gone, moving so fast that he almost seemed to disappear.

By the time Petia was getting to her feet and helping demolitions tech Zenais up, an alarm had begun to sound. She knew before reports started flooding into her comm that the prisoner was gone without a trace; she just hoped he hadn’t done any major damage on his way out.

The account submitted by Petia S. is engaging and mysterious, but unfortunately, we only have her word that things took place as she described. Assuming she is telling the truth of things as best as she is able, I can only assume that she found the place where a past crew of her ship hid some sort of human-mimicking automaton. By its behavior and state in which she found it, it seems that whatever purpose they bought the illicit machine for, it had gone rogue and they had decided to deal with it by locking it away, perhaps hoping someday to find some means to repair their expensive and horrific purchase.

The line the entity is reported to have delivered just before tossing its rescuers to the ground and escaping is far too convenient and clever to be accurate; I suspect Petia misheard "treachery, the fools" or something similar, as she describes it, or him, as having a very soft voice.

Unfortunately, as this account lacked any surveillance recordings to back it up, I can't verify any of it, except that a Petia S. is actually the owner of the ship mentioned in the account, and that it was indeed recently purchased at a public auction.

2946-11-20 - Tales from the Inbox: Junker's Justification

Today, we see the end of Jacob Borisov's four-part account of his role in the discovery of the xenoarchaeological sites on Vinteri. After making landfall on an icy rogue world and trekking six kilometers across its inhospitable surface at the direction of the businessman Kenneth Lorenz, Mr. Borisov suddenly found himself at the edge of an icy cliff, over which his eccentric client had apparently run headlong.

Obviously, since Mr. Lorenz is still alive, this is not what happened. Indeed, standing on that precipice, Borisov was very near to the goal of the entire adventure. Soon, he would set eyes on the first of what we now know are at least seven xenoarchaological sites buried on the rogue world we now call Vinteri - a site which was apparently discovered by a scout pilot and covered up for more than a century by a family which dreamed of plundering the riches within.

“Lorenz, where are you?” Jacob radioed.

“Checking on something.” Came the reply. “I’ll be back in a moment. The target is down the cliff face about twenty meters.”

“Down?” Jacob replied, getting on his hands and knees to peer over the edge. About the indicated distance below him, there was an opening in the vertical rock wall. A quick reconnoiter with the grav sled revealed it to be the entrance of a wide cavern, opened to the sky by the same cataclysm which had sundered the hill itself. Visible within under the sled’s lights, the cavern was blocked by a cave-in, but the space between mouth and cave-in was an impressively broad gallery with a sturdy-looking, arched ceiling. “Looks empty to me, boss.”

“Why do you think I needed explosives?” Lorenz shot back. “Get down there and clear that cave-in.”

Jacob grumbled into his helmet, then brought up the demolitions heads-up display and routed it through the sled’s camera feed. The small charges secured to the grav sled might be just enough to clear the collapse, but he would need to be careful not to make the situation even worse. If there was a secondary collapse, there might not be enough mining-grade demolitions equipment in Bancroft’s armory to dig out Lorenz’s secrets.

Jacob sent the other mercenaries to look for their vanished employer and make sure nothing unfortunate happened to him, then secured a grapnel into the hilltop and, assisted by the grav sled, lowered himself down to the mouth of the broken cavern. He could do what Lorenz wanted, of course – compared to some of the tricky cave-ins he’d had to move on Thirty Below, this one looked like child’s play. The mystery of where his employer had wandered off to was someone else’s problem, at least for the moment. If the businessman was in radio contact, he hadn’t gone far, and probably wasn’t in immediate danger.

Examining the cave-in, Jacob found it to be mostly ice, rather than rock. Oddly, it seemed to be the same sort of ice as found on the hillside above, and it showed some signs of melting and re-freezing. According to his suit’s acoustic probe, the cave-in was only a few meters thick – the trick would be to push the debris outwards, rather than down into whatever lay beyond.

As Joseph busied himself setting the charges, he turned his helmet radio into the channel created by the other mercenaries as they searched for Lorenz. He was less surprised than they were that no trace of the business magnate was found.

When the charges were in place, Jacob called his subordinates and suggested they retire to the lee side of the hill, then hooked himself back to the line and climbed up above the roof of the cavern mouth. “Lorenz, I’m ready to blow the cave-in.”

Jacob hadn’t expected a response, but he got one anyway. “I am clear, Captain.” He replied. “Continue when you are ready.”

Jacob moved the grav sled clear, then, after a brief countdown, triggered the charges remotely. Below him, a shower of broken ice erupted from the cave mouth and plummeted to the shattered rubble below. The sound of the blast was muffled by the thinness of the atmosphere, resulting in a sound more like that of a pane of glass being shattered than an explosion.

Within seconds of the sounds of falling material fading, Jacob saw three helmets peeking over the edge to look down. He spared them a nod of confidence, then began to descend once more. It was time to see what his employer was after. If it was anything like the valuables which brought prospectors to a world like Thirty Below, it would be veins of rare mineral substances, but Jacob wondered if instead it was a treasure-trove of ill-gotten wealth, hidden by a long-dead space pirate.

Walking through the pale mist left over by the explosion’s rapid vaporization of a small portion of the ice, the mercenary stopped short when he saw a pillar of undoubtedly artificial origin, just beyond where the cave-in had been. As the mist cleared, he saw it was one of a pair, capped with a broad, sturdy arch. Beyond the pillars, walls of carved stone extended into the darkness.

Though there was no mistaking artifice, there was no sign of ornamentation, except at the capstone of the arch. There, Jacob saw a curious symbol half-covered by an ice formation. Shaped something like a pair of concentric triangles, one slightly crooked with respect to the other, the sigil was immediately familiar, as it was identical to the marking on Kenneth Lorenz’s pendant, which had also been scratched on the Hawkbat’s auxiliary data core.

“Call your pilot, Captain Borisov.” Lorenz radioed, but Jacob heard the man’s voice through the thin atmosphere as well. He turned around to find the businessman picking his way across the cavern floor towards the archway. How he’d gotten there so quickly after the blast, Jacob couldn’t begin to guess. “The ship should fit quite easily here, if we clear the ice your explosives didn’t deal with.

“How-“ Jacob realized the answer before he finished asking the question, spying light-colored scuff-marks on the stone. Clearly, the Hawkbat had been here before. If he had to guess, one of Lorenz’s ancestors had been a pilot in the Terran Navy, had stumbled on the structure while out on a routine patrol, and kept it secret, hoping someday to return and “discover” it for himself. Perhaps the pilot had even caused the minor cave-in, to hide it from any other explorer who might happen to land on the rogue world. Lorenz, knowing the story, had needed only the flight logs on the old data core. “Family secrets, Mr. Lorenz?”

“Not for much longer.” The man put out a gloved hand to touch the ancient stonework. “Most of my family didn’t believe great-grandad’s stories. But I did. He was here all those years ago.”

“What’s inside?” Jacob hurried into the archway, heedless of the danger inherent in such an ancient structure.

“We have about an hour to find out, so get your people down here and that ship moving.”

“Captain, it’s Sharma.” The cool, matter-of-fact voice of the pilot back at the Hawkbat cut in. “Bancroft just called down to say that a half-dozen grav signatures just lit up in orbit, and they’re maneuvering under power. No idea what they are, but they’re moving fast.”

“Moving to where?” Jacob asked, though he already knew the answer.

“Looks like they’re coming to pay us a visit down here, Captain. Or at least to get orbital over our heads. Bancroft says they’re bugging out.”

“Bring that junker over here, Sharma.” Jacob instructed. “We’ve got a landing site for you, if you can do a little tricky flying. We’ll be orbital before they get near us.” After cutting the link to the pilot, he turned back to his employer. “You think they’ll just let us take off with whatever we can carry, Lorenz?”

“The last person to find this place got away with this.” Lorenz held up his pendant, with its symbol matching the archway. “But we won’t chance it. Take pictures, but leave everything. We’ll be back.” With a flourish, the businessman withdrew a prospector’s beacon from his equipment harness and spiked it into the floor in front of the archway. Jacob knew the device would squawk at anyone who approached that the site was claimed, and provide contact information for the person who placed it. It wouldn’t stop smugglers or pirates, but it would at least give legitimate explorers pause.

“You came all the way here just to look at it?” Jacob shook his head inside his helmet. The idea of walking through an alien structure preserved under the ice and rock of such a place, and not taking any of the treasures one might find within, was simply beyond him.

“It’s worth more the less we touch.” Lorenz insisted. “Clock’s ticking, Captain. Would you like to be the third person to see what’s beyond that doorway?”

Kenneth Lorenz did indeed make his money back tenfold on the effort to find his great-grandfather's secrets; several institutes of xenoarchaeology competed to buy out his claim for the site, and the winning bid by the Sagan Institute here on Centauri was enough for Lorenz to retire. Instead, he bought majority stakes in several mercenary companies, including the Bancroft crew's firm, and steered the institute toward these companies when it was faced with the need to protect a whole planet from the possibility of illicit scavengers damaging its archaeological wealth.

Despite early speculation, it is clear now that Vinteri was never a truly inhabited world. The grand, stone-carved structures on and beneath its surface were not colonies or cities; they were tombs or perhaps, as no remains have yet been discovered, memorials. Two and a half thousand years before humanity's first space age, an interstellar civilization of which we know nothing else decided to memorialize its fallen greats with eternal tombs preserved in the ice of starless Vinteri. They guarded these tombs with a fleet of automated sentries; fortunately for the exploration effort, by the time Lorenz and his hired help arrived there, only a handful of these machines remained operational.

Examination of one of the captured sentry automatons by both the Confederated Navy and the Sagan Institute demonstrates that this mystery people vanished before they reached our own level of technological sophistication, leaving only the tombs on Vinteri behind.

Discoveries will undoubtedly continue to be made on this remarkable world for many lifetimes, and perhaps similar monuments exist elsewhere, waiting to be discovered.

2946-11-13 - Tales from the Inbox: Junker's Landfall

In Tales from the Inbox: Jewel from a Junker and Tales from the Inbox: A Junker's Journey, we saw how Jacob Borisov's mercenary crew, in the employ of the businessman Kenneth Lorenz, was tasked with following up on leads derived from an ancient data core. These leads led to a rogue planet, drifting without a stellar parent through the void. Though Mr. Borisov couldn't possibly imagine a more inhospitable and unlikely place to go looking for his client's family secrets, he secured himself a position on the landing party, and rode down to the surface of the unexplored body in a tiny, antiquated scout ship.

Despite misgivings, Mr. Borsov and his team reached the surface without incident, ready to help their client unearth his family secrets.

When at last the scout’s landing skids scraped against a hard surface and the whole vessel came to a stop, Jacob Borisov unlatched his acceleration harness and got to his feet. The landing had been uneventful, despite the popping and groaning of the Hawkbat’s ancient hull as it adjusted to the pull of gravity on the way down from orbit. Though the rogue world had an atmosphere, it had proven too weak to provide either significant friction braking or severe turbulence, resulting in an unexpectedly smooth ride.

Kirstin Sharma, the attack boat pilot Lorenz had chosen for his team, had handled the landing expertly; Jacob didn’t feel nearly as terrified as he usually did riding a spacecraft of unproven serviceability down to the surface of an unexplored and potentially hazardous planetoid. As the mercenary commander began opening supply crates and handing out pressure suits, he wondered when he’d started treating such hazardous landfalls as routine. It was, he decided, probably around the time he left his lucrative first career as a mining prospector.

Shortly after landing, Kenneth Lorenz appeared in the doorway leading into the multipurpose central compartment. “Suit-“ He interrupted himself, seeing that the mercenaries were already shrugging on the tough, airtight garments. “Ah.”

“What’s it look like out there?” Jacob asked, handing the little man another suit, identical to the rest. The smart-fabric would of course adjust itself to fit securely on any stature or body shape, coiling up any excess material in out of the way places. Jacob was glad that full hazard suits were unnecessary on the cold, starless world; six of those ten-foot-tall, powered monstrosities would never have fit in the Hawkbat’s limited crew space.

“We had to put down about six klicks from the target.” Lorenz replied apologetically. “Your pilot wouldn’t land on the ridge closer to the entrance. Something about ice sublimation.”

“She’s right not to.” Landing on a surface of water ice wouldn’t be a problem over the space of a few hours, but Jacob had seen the sensor reports. The rogue’s icy surface was crusted with crystallized methane, carbon dioxide, and even nitrogen. The heat radiating from the Hawkbat’s belly would cause such ice to boil away, digging the ship into a hole of its own making relatively quickly. For anything but a very brief touchdown, the little scout could sink too deeply to be safely launched again. “Wait, entrance?”

“You’d think they’d design ships like this so they could land on ice.” Lorenz grumbled, pointedly ignoring the query. Jacob suppressed his frustration that his client was so deficient in the knowledge that kept most spacers alive, remembering that the man had, until recently, done nothing even remotely like what he had now set out to do. “Anyway, we’ll have to walk there.”

“That’s not a problem.” Six kilometers across a lifeless, icy landscape was nothing he or his crew couldn’t handle. What lay beyond Lorenz’s entrance was another matter entirely.

As soon as Jacob had checked the suits of his three compatriots and Lorenz, and had allowed his own to be checked in turn, they each hefted a sidearm and a pack of supplemental life support and heating elements, then took a turn cycling through the ship’s old-fashioned inflatable airlock. As Lorenz deployed the grav sled on which most of the equipment was already tied, each of the mercenaries checked their weapons by firing into an icy outcrop, verifying that the extreme cold was not affecting the electromagnets or battery components. Lorenz didn’t seem to expect trouble, and it didn’t seem likely in such an aggressively lifeless place, but nobody was taking any chances.

The six-kilometer hike turned out to be almost insultingly easy, as Lorenz led the way down from the outcropping on which the ship was parked and across a broad basin toward the ridge on the opposite side. The ice underfoot boiled into clouds of vapor under the heat of the team’s boot soles, but the surface was neither slick nor rugged. The thin atmosphere, kicked up into a gentle wind by some unknown quirk of the local cryosphere, whistled mournfully against the fittings of Jacob’s helmet. Despite his uneasiness with Lorenz’s secretive mission, the mercenary captain found the rogue world’s eternal night almost peaceful.

“Hell of a place to hide family secrets.” Somebody grumbled into the radio link. Jacob turned his head to glare back at his three compatriots, but Lorenz, still leading the way, pretended not to notice.

The last half-kilometer of the march, ascending the rise on the far side of the valley, was only slightly more strenuous than the first five and a half. The hilly upland was jagged and angular, with vast, angular blocks of blue-white ice seeming to protrude out of the hill like the fallen remains of cyclopean masonry. With every surface spewing icy mist at the slightest touch, Jacob quietly applauded Pilot Sharma’s decision not to risk even a brief touchdown closer to whatever it was Lorenz was trying to reach.

At the top of the ridge, Lorenz took control of the sled, sending it high up into the air to get his bearings. As he did, Jacob examined the horizon in all directions, unable to see any reason why Lorenz was interested in the place. Irregular ridges of ice-sheathed rock functionally identical to the one he was standing on marched in all directions to the horizon. The ice-wreathed planet hid its secrets well – if it had any to hide.

“This way.” Lorenz radioed, gesturing around a towering, blocky ice formation on the very top of the ridge. Without waiting for the others, the businessman darted off around the formation, and Jacob lost sight of him.

“Follow him.” Jacob instructed, not bothering to suggest that his employer slow down. Gathering up the other mercenaries, he led the way around the formation, following the still-steaming footprints left by the over-eager businessman.

At the other side of the formation, Jacob saw that the hillside, shattered by some ancient seismic event, lay in tumbledown pieces in the valley below, leaving an almost vertical drop. The mercenary stopped short, holding up his hand to bring the other three to a similar halt.

Kenneth Lorenz was nowhere to be seen. His footprints ended at the precipice, as if he’d simply run right over the side.

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.