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.

2946-11-20 - 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.

2946-11-27 - 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.

2946-11-02 - Upcoming Events: Cosmic Background Team at Planetfall Day Festival

The Cosmic Background team will be attending the 693rd Planetfall Day celebrations this year in Yaxkin City, Planet, Centauri. While the team will be attending a number of events on the day of the event in both private and professional capacities, Ashton Pesarisi, Sovanna Rostami, and Duncan Chaudri will be holding a Cosmic Background meet-up at the historic Thompsett Tavern at 2:4:00 local time. There is no entrance fee, but the venue has a maximum capacity of about 200 persons.

The meet-up is expected to last until the Hour of Darkness, which usually starts around 2:7:30 local time.

For those of our audience in nearby systems who might not have the holiday schedule of Centauri committed to memory, the Planetfall Day celebration falls on the Standard Calendar date of 11 December this year.