2946-10-16 - Tales from the Inbox: Libbie's Gallery

Not every member of this audience is an interstellar professional.

This seemingly obvious fact often slips my mind, as the goal of Cosmic Background from the beginning has always been to provide variety entertainment for spacers, largely about spacers. However, it is quite true that there are a number of faithful viewers and readers of our content for whom the events described are impossibly distant from their everyday life, farther from their world than even fiction could be.

It is from this side of the audience that Libbie A. brings the story which encouraged her to sell her storefront art gallery in the growing market of Maribel and move back to the Core Worlds. Evidently, after encountering an eccentric denizen of that world and a macabre painting, she decided the Frontier was not sufficiently tamed for her liking.

I find it likely that this story is the result of a psychological warfare campaign by one of Libbie's business competitors, but she is convinced that the man she met was being honest with her. I have seen stills of the painting in question, and can find no records of creatures such as the one depicted on the canvas - I have placed the image Libbie provided on our datasphere hub, and have done my best to do it justice in simple text here, knowing that many of our readers can't access the Centauri datasphere or any of our major mirror hubs.


The word, spoken quietly, caused Libbie to jump in surprise. She had been reading an explorer’s unexpectedly gripping account of his escape from a burrowing predator on one of the many worlds of the Frontier, and hadn’t seen the customer enter her shabby little store-front.

Hurriedly stowing her slate reader, Libbie sat up and spied the old man standing in front of one of the larger pieces in the dusty old gallery. Like most of her other wares, the painting was done in the old style, with oil paints not too different from those used to paint the long-crumbled masterpieces of the Earthbound Age of Lights. The only thing different about the modern compositions was the pigments fixed to the canvas – the synthetic colors would not fade with age, not even after the canvas itself crumbled to dust.

As if noticing Libbie for the first time, the old man waved her closer. She marked him as unlikely to buy the piece; his clothing was even shabbier than the little store-front she passed off as a local artists’ gallery, and his white hair was wildly unkempt, sticking out from under the brim of a quaint sun-hat. He was, she suspected, one of Maribel’s old hands; a man who’d seen the colony in its hardscrabble youth as a young man. Most of the old hands, holding agricultural lands around the world’s original colonial settlement, had been hit hard by the relocation of the main spaceport halfway around the world to a more favorable location. Their holdings were still vast by most standards, but they were, other than the value gained from working the land, all but worthless.

“Can I help you, sir?” Libbie asked, sidling around the counter to approach the customer. She realized as she did that the man was examining her least favorite piece in the gallery, and suppressed a shudder. Penniless old hand or not, she hoped he would buy the painting, if only to ensure she never had to look at it again.

“Possibly not.” He looked up for the first time, his piercing crystal-blue eyes seeming at odds with his threadbare appearance. “What can you tell me about this painting?”

The gallery attendant shrugged. “Not much beyond what the placard says, I’m afraid. I’ve sold a few other paintings by the same artist, but this is probably his most… striking.” Libbie doubted her half-hearted sales pitch was having any effect; the old man could almost certainly tell she didn’t like the painting. It wasn’t that it was of poor quality – it was truthfully among the best paintings she’d ever hung in her gallery – it was that the horror depicted emerging from the rust-hued fog in the middle of the piece. Its slavering, toothy maw, three dead, hollow eye sockets set in a skull-like head, and bestial claws seemed all the more chilling on a very human-like frame, restrained by great chains. Libbie had dealt in macabre and even sadistic paintings before without letting any of them get to her, but this one piece had managed to break her usually professional treatment of the art she sold. 

“I would have liked to see the others by this artist.” The old man muttered. “They sold, you say?”

“Yes.” Libbie rallied. “There are images on our datasphere hub, if you are curious.”

“No, that’s all right.” The old man shrugged. “What can you tell me about where he lives?”

“The artist?” Libbie shook her head. “Not much, sorry.” The signature on the paintings was for one “Ciril O”, but the reclusive Ciril never came to Libbie’s gallery directly. He shipped the pieces directly, and received his sale proceeds by the quaint method of sending credit chits to an anonymous mail stop in one of Maribel’s more inhospitable regions. “He likes his anonymity; if I had to guess, he’s only a part-time artistic genius.” Genius he was, Libbie knew; but she also suspected he was a sinister one.

“Of course.” The old man agreed distantly. “But I didn’t mean the painter.” 

“Who then, sir?”

“The subject, who else?” The old man replied, as if this was obvious. "If he's back, it would do to steer clear of the place."

Libbie was silent for several seconds, processing this. The old man, seeming to understand her shock, offered a faint smile. “Nothing? Perhaps that’s for the best, miss.” He sighed, then turned and headed for the door. “Good day.”


2946-10-23 - Tales from the Inbox: Brand's Badlands

Nojus would have paused at the ridgeline to catch his breath and admire the view, but under the watchful eyes of his camera-drones, he thought better of it. Beneath his feet, the dark basalt hills sloped down to meet the golden sands of the desert beyond. The unnamed world was arid to the extreme, but not quite as hot as he had been hoping when he had seen pictures of the place; in fact, the temperature since he’d landed had never exceeded thirty Celsius. Not even a reasonable amount of exaggerated exertion had drawn enough sweat from his brow to compensate for the unexpectedly mild temperature; there was no concealing from the watchful eyes of the drones that his hike from the landing site had been only slightly more strenuous than a tourist’s hike through the Bradagan Foothills on Planet at Centauri.

The view that Nojus wasn’t able to stop to appreciate was spectacular from horizon to horizon, but not because of the brilliant golden luster of the local desert sand, or the stark contrast it made with the deep, chocolate-brown volcanic rock that made up most of the hills. It wasn’t worth admiring because of the brilliant scarlet pinpricks of bulbous local flora which populated the margins where the hills vanished into the sand, or the pair of moons visible in the hazy slate sky. The detail that tempted the veteran explorer to stop and stare was the very detail that, when he’d seen it in still images, had convinced him to come to an unnamed, unknown world, where no dangerous life had ever been encountered.

The titanic skull half-submerged in the brilliant sand was easily ninety meters long and thirty high. Where the dry air and unobstructed daylight would have bleached Earthly bones white, the skeletal deposits of local fauna oxidized in air, forming a deep blue patina. It was, Nojus thought, a most perfect emblem for the desolate world: a darkly lustrous sapphire set on the edge of a vast golden wasteland.

Without delay, Nojus configured his Reed-Soares Portable Survival Utility into a hiking pole and started the descent toward the long-dead titan’s remains. The Naval Survey Auxiliary pilot who’d given him coordinates and still images of the world had been disappointingly certain that the towering remains dotting the desert were those of an extinct species, perhaps the giant cousins of a scaled, amphibious apex predator living in the world’s few scattered oases and wetlands, itself already a beast of unusual size and ferocity. While he intended to take his camera-drones into the marshy habitats of such monsters before he left the planet, Nojus had decided to follow up on a very different detail of the Survey pilot’s account first.

Picking his way down the rocky hillside, surrounded by his modest flotilla of automatons, Nojus saw little wildlife. A sort of scuttling, chitinous creature lived in abundance among the rocks, but their skittish nature defied his best attempts to sneak up on them with his drones. A fast-moving flier, the same slate color as the sky, darted down in pursuit of the skittering things, but its speed was such that Nojus doubted that his drones were getting a good recording of its hunt. He fervently hoped that the pilot’s story was true; otherwise, one of his three days on the wild planet’s surface would be wasted.

As the rock below his feet gave way to the bright sand, Nojus began to see more wildlife. A small herd of bumbling, portly grazers meandered among the scarlet succulents at the desert’s edge, carefully nibbling the soft, blood-red flesh between scabrous upwellings of acrid-smelling, toxic sap. Both the herbivores and the slinking, feline shape which shadowed them paid the explorer and his drones no mind, but they did provide Nojus with some footage and an excuse to emphasize how a human would be killed by the toxins the desert herbivores ingested in a single bite. Most of the plant life on such an arid world was forced to guard its hard-earned biomass carefully, just as Earthly cacti shielded their soft flesh with a hedge of spines.

Passing beyond the stand of crimson growths and into the open sand, Nojus headed directly for the huge skull. The darkness inside its cavernous eye sockets loomed menacingly, and though he had no feeling of apprehension, Nojus knew that his audience, seeing his destination, would be more invested if he did. As he approached, he wove a few subtle hints of unease into his demeanor, for their benefit.

When at last he stood in the long shadow of the great fossilized skull, Nojus sent his drones up for wide-angle shots while he reconfigured his survival multitool into a spearlike weapon. Having no means to direct their movements personally, he had to trust in algorithmic photography to adequately capture the scene, as usual. For once, he doubted that even the best automation software would be up to the task.

When the drones returned, Nojus counted them, and noticed that one was missing. For the first time since he had set off from his landing site, he smiled. It was evidence that the Survey pilot had been telling the truth. The leviathans of the planet’s ancient past were dead, but their weathered bones had come to shelter those horrors that yet lived.

“I wonder who lives here.” Nojus muttered for the benefit of the cameras, feigning ignorance. What he’d been told about the creeping ambushers who hid from daylight was precious little, but if even half of it was accurate, his audience was in for a treat.

For those of you who follow both this text feed and Mr. Brand's vidcast episodes, you will probably recognize today's account as being the prelude to his most recent installation. You will probably also know that Mr. Brand barely survived his first day on this recently-surveyed Frontier world; he fared badly in an encounter with with some sort of furred, serpent-like predator, and nearly became extinct along with the titanic creatures that once roamed that world.

Obviously, Mr. Brand survived, or we wouldn't have his account or the video episode he published. Badly injured, it took him almost two whole days to drag himself back to his landing craft, and though he is recovering well from his injuries, it is my understanding that this is the closest that he has come to losing his life since his infamous 2939 run-in with a hive of blade scarabs on Barsamia.

Mr. Brand tried to persuade me to also run a Tales from the Inbox episode describing his agonizing return trip, but I will spare this audience the excruciatingly detailed account of how Nojus covered twenty-four kilometers of alien badlands after being partially disemboweled by a predator that fortunately disliked the taste of his foreign biology. It is sufficient to say that he is in good spirits about the incident, and plans to return to work as soon as his medical team allows.

2946-10-30 - Tales from the Inbox: Jewel from a Junker

Earlier this year, one of the most important xenoarchaeological finds of our lifetime was made under an exceedingly odd set of circumstances. Many of those of you among our audience have already heard part of the story of the discovery of the first site on Vinteri, as protecting the remote world's undisturbed treasures has been an effort largely policed by a number of mercenary companies hired by the Sagan Institute of Centauri.

While the spacer community based at Centauri has largely familiarized itself with parts of this story, when Jacob Borisov asked if we would like to run the story here, I was only too happy to arrange it. Captain Borisov was at first intending to write his account into a holofilm script, but he decided that the effort would be far more dull and far less lucrative than continuing his primary means of employment - that is, as a mercenary commander. He provided his notes, as well as shipboard surveillance recordings and comm logs which catalog the events leading to the Vinteri discovery. I have assembled them into a text account in four parts, which will be published sequentially.

The story begins in an unlikely way, as most great tales do - with Mr. Borisov and his client, Kenneth Lorenz, inspecting a recently captured pirate's vessel.

“She’s beautiful.”

The old military scout ship was anything but. Significant areas of its original yellow and grey-green paint had long ago surrendered their hold on the hull, leaving uneven patches of dull alloy exposed. Its sleek, raked prow and narrow forward viewpanels were marred by the ill effects of generations of microscopic impacts, and battered by the scars of a few larger ones. A pair of magnetic funnels flared on either side of the hull, outward hints that the small vessel was powered by a type of reactor that had gone out of favor almost two centuries before. Dented weapon sponsons scavenged from a wholly different sort of vessel had been mounted outboard of the scoops in order to attach a pair of heavy autocannon to what had even in its long-ago military service been an unarmed craft. Even these relatively recent additions were pitted and scarred with age and hard use.

Jacob waved to the guards, and they stood aside to let Lorenz approach the battered ship. He didn’t understand why the old man had wanted it so badly, but the sizable up-front retainer that had secured his services had been sufficient to prevent any speculation. For the cost of outfitting two top-of-the-line assault gunships, the eccentric businessman had contracted Jacob’s crew to obtain the ship of a particular outlaw, intact.

Jacob had expected to find the target flying a Kosseler Gryphon or some other high-end, performance vessel, and discovering him at the controls of a hundred-thirty year old U6R Hawkbat had been somewhat anticlimactic. It had been child’s play for Jacob’s veteran combat pilots to disable the antiquated ship in open space and tow it back to the waiting hangar of Taavi Bancroft for delivery. The sullen pirate was still sitting in the ship’s brig, as yet unwilling to discuss the reason his decrepit ship was worth almost a million credits to a Core Worlds banker. Jacob doubted the pirate even knew what had brought ruin down upon him.

Even as he made delivery, Jacob still didn’t know why the Hawkbat was worth what he was being paid for it. His crew had gone over every inch of the corroded junker on their return trip, and found nothing that might explain Kenneth Lorenz’s keen interest. A copy of the ancient computer system’s data core had been dissected by the crew’s best computer tech, and still nothing had been found. The wealthy man had not once asked about the fate of the ship’s former owner, and hadn’t even batted an eye when Jacob had hinted that his crew had inspected the vessel. The mercenary commander was almost ready to conclude that the battered old scout was some sort of obscure collector’s item.

As if telepathic, Jacob’s middle-aged client turned around, a sly grin on his usually-humorless face. “Captain Borisov, I’ll bet you are curious what this vessel is to me.”

Jacob shrugged, a gesture meant to acknowledge the question but not answer it. “Your money is good, Mr. Lorenz.”

“Indeed it is.” Lorenz beckoned to Jacob. “Come, Captain. Let’s have a look inside.”

“Of course.” Jacob had worked with far more paranoid clients than Lorenz, so stepping up to the ancient scout-ship’s unlocked hatch and leading the way was no trouble. The inside, only minimally cleaned after its owner had been removed, was as safe as a ship that had been flying for more than a century could be, but Jacob preferred to take every opportunity to keep a good customer from suspecting foul play.

The lights flickered on as the pair climbed inside. The crew space of the scout ship was divided into three small compartments, and the pirate’s heavy alterations to his craft had filled the largest of these almost completely with added equipment. Jacob led the way through the narrow passage between banks of machinery and up the ladder to the ship’s formerly two-seat cockpit, where now only a single acceleration chair and a U-shaped ring of slightly less antiquated machinery had replaced the side by side configuration.

Lorenz leaned over the controls, shaking his head. “I was afraid of this.” He muttered. “Replacement ferrosillicate displays fetch a high price on the market.”

“You mean to strip it?” Jacob hazarded, trying to keep his tone neutral. Seeing the old scout as a source of valuable, scarce parts would perhaps explain Lorenz’s interest.

“No.” The businessman straightened and looked out the viewpanels at the inside of Bancroft’s hangar. “I’ll be restoring it as something of a… family heirloom.”

“I see.” Jacob nodded cautiously, though he didn’t. Even wealthiest and most spendthrift dilettantes he had met wouldn’t spend nearly a million credits to acquire a family heirloom, only to spend yet more reconstructing it to some original state.

Lorenz turned and headed back toward the ladder. “Everything seems in order here.” Jacob detected no trace of sentimentality in his client’s voice or bearing. A family heirloom the Hawkbat might be, but something told him Lorenz expected to recoup every credit he sunk into the battered old relic.

Lorenz squeezed past the machinery once more and keyed open the bunk compartment situated in the hull between the two external ramscoop funnels, and Jacob followed silently. The walls of the small room bowed inward to make room for the vast magnetic coils within the scoops; the mercenary suspected that the bunkroom was deafeningly loud when they were active, dragging charged particles out of local stellar wind and sequestering them in a pair of high-pressure fuel tanks. A far more elegant solution for the collection and storage of reactor fuel had been available even when the scout-ship had been built, but Hawkbats had been built to be cheap, plentiful, repairable, and expendable, not elegant.

Lorenz spent only an instant taking in the cramped compartment before turning back and busying himself with a panel on the bulkhead next to the doorway. “Now, Captain, let’s see if it’s still here.”

“What is?”

“The auxiliary data core, of course.” Lorenz grunted with exertion, and a half-meter-wide plate of bulkhead paneling popped free. He set the thin sheet of metal on the floor, then peered inside.

Jacob, having never heard of such a small ship having an auxiliary computer data core, approached and looked over the businessman’s shoulder. Sure enough, behind a tangle of unsecured cabling, he spotted the familiar flattened-cylinder outline of an old-model data core, mounted in a trio of brackets against the opposite panel. Based on the extensive corrosion on the brackets, the device was probably undisturbed since the vessel was surplussed. Someone had, at some point, scratched a curious symbol on its stamped metal case – it appeared to be two triangles, one set into the other, with the edges of the inner shape not quire in line with the edges of the outer.

“Just as I hoped.” Lorenz announced, after examining the scratched symbol. “You’ve earned every credit of your fee, Captain Borisov.”

“What do you think is on that core, that’s so valuable?” Jacob didn’t bother trying to disguise his interest now.

“Family secrets, Captain.” Lorenz smiled. It was the winning smile of a man who had a business proposition to offer, Jacob recognized. Reaching into the collar of his brilliantly white shirt, Lorenz withdrew an odd pendant bearing a symbol like the one scratched on the data core, and compared them side by side for Jacob to see. “Are you and your crew free to take on another contract?”

Remembering the lucrative fee Lorenz had already paid for a relatively easy job, Jacob knew he’d never justify a negative answer to his officers and crew. “I think we can work something out.”

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.