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.”