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.