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.