2949-06-15 – Tales from the Inbox: The Jericho Heist

I cannot verify this story, nor can I definitively tie it to the names its participants claim. Sent in by a pair of freelance spacers who claim to have been featured in this text feed once before, this account did not come with any corroborating evidence such as sensor feeds and the like which is quite common with our recent fare.

Given that the heist claimed is technically illegal, I can see why the participants chose to send only a written account. The Incarnation, as the damaged party, cannot attempt to enforce charges until after the war), but wars don’t last forever, and plundering a battlefield is hardly an honorable practice in the best of times.

Still, this pair seemed proud of their handiwork, and I can verify the existence, until about eleven days ago, of a dubious bounty offered for the collection of one wrecked Jericho bomber. The anonymous posting on the Maribel datasphere was taken down and listed as cancelled, but due to the legality of this sort of salvage I would expect the poster to do so even if they had received the desired item and paid out the promised bounty.

I suspect if there is anything to this story, Naval Intelligence is already looking into it.

“Vari, are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

Hugh Apperlo waited for an answer, but when none came, he turned away from the viewpanel to look at the woman at the little starship’s helm station to find her staring back at him, expression, as usual,  wholly indecipherable.

Diane Dragović was barely big enough to call a light-duty hauler, and its main duty space was a weird hybrid of a smaller ship’s cockpit and a larger one’s command deck, with the twin side-by side helm stations of the former sitting in the middle of a relatively spacious compartment, with a few collapsible secondary stations set along the port and starboard bulkheads. Hugh heard an alert chime on his station, but made no move to see to it until he had an answer.

Varinia Villa eventually relented, shrugging her shoulders in her odd lopsided way. “Theoretically, yes.”

“I can’t say I’m reassured.”

Varinia’s hands ceased their movement over the controls. “Tell me the word, and we leave. There’s no contract on this run.”

Hugh briefly considered doing so, but his eyes moved from Varinia’s face to the crystalline spines protruding from holes in her specially-configured smart-fabric tunic. These, the reason for her distinctive shrug, were artificial structures anchored deep in her muscles each one the vertex of an erratically geometric pattern of ridges and protrusions that extended from her left shoulder down her arm and back.

Seeing the spines, he was reminded why she was so willing to take risks for a big payday. His shoulders sagged, and he gave in. “Just be careful. Ellison will want his ship back in one piece.”

Hugh took a seat and made a show of checking through the various engineering alerts on his board, refusing to look up at the viewpanel. The alert which had chimed a moment earlier was a minor one, nothing he could use to request a halt. What Varinia was about to do had originally been his idea, and he regretted having voiced it the moment he said it, seeing that curious gleam in the woman’s dark eyes that suggested furious activity behind them.

That had been three weeks ago, and Hugh had never regretted his idea more than he did now, piloting borrowed Dragović toward the tattered wreckage left behind by one of dozens of skirmishes that had taken place along the front in the last few months. Though capable of extremely precise maneuvers, the ship was otherwise in no shape to make a run for it if there was trouble - its Xiou-Edwards drive worked correctly about eight times out of ten, and its main gravitic drive could only provide about four gees of acceleration before half the circuit breaker switch-heads in the engine room decided to quit their jobs rather suddenly and retire to a quite life embedded in the opposite bulkhead.

“Entering the field.” Varinia reached over to pat Hugh on the shoulder in what she probably thought was a reassuring way. The effect was somewhat spoiled when a small piece of debris clanged against the ship’s forward hull.

Hugh took one deep breath, rolled his neck to ease the tension in his muscles, then loaded the sensor program they’d loaded before setting out. As the computer analyzed each piece of debris that tumbled past, Hugh called up the engineering diagnostics, watching the various jittering charts and fluctuating readouts for a pattern that might spell trouble. If he could spot a problem early, it might just save both their lives.

Ellison had offered to loan them a much newer ship for what they intended to do, but Varinia had insisted on Dragović. Hugh didn’t yet know why, but he had learned a long time ago to trust her instincts. Though most people tended to dismiss her as Hugh’s bedroom plaything because of her slight build, pretty face, and horrific fleshsculpt devised by Silver Strand chattel dealers, Varinia really was the brains of their two-spacer operation. If she thought the seemingly inferior ship gave them a better chance of collecting the remains of one of the Incarnation’s new Jericho attack craft, and then trading this wreckage for the sizable anonymous bounty posted on the Maribel grey market, she was probably right.

“Nothing on the sensors yet.” Hugh didn’t need to say anything, but he also hated to let the tense silence fester. “No candidates, no sentry buoys.” In theory, the Navy deposited sentry buoys at the sites of battlefields warning civilian craft to stay away, but with the Navy in most engagements ceding the field of battle to the Incarnation, they rarely had an opportunity. The Incarnation’s own salvage efforts seemed secretive and lackluster by comparison. Perhaps they wrote off every ship crippled in combat, seeing no point in recovering more than survivors and data.

“It’s here.” Varinia probably hadn’t intended Hugh to hear her whispering assertion. He snuck a glance at her, and saw her face set in dark determination, as if she could will a wrecked Jericho to appear before them. He knew what this score meant to her – it was the first time they had even a prayer of obtaining enough money for the first set of procedures to reverse the horrific modifications which had been forced upon her years before. Hugh would have preferred to invest it into buying their own ship – he’d long since stopped letting Varinia’s fleshsculpts bother him – but he didn’t dare tell her that. She had been trying to have them removed as long as he’d known her.

As if forced to do so by sheer force of will, the sensor routine suddenly chimed its discovery of a target object. “Matching contact.” Hugh flicked his finger over the alert to send the coordinates across to Varinia’s station. “Ninety-four percent certainty.”

Varinia adjusted course immediately, though it caused several pieces of wreckage to clatter against the ship’s already battered plating. “Get that scoop open.”

Hugh did as instructed, opening the forward cargo doors and extending the struts and meshwork of the haphazard scoop they’d installed there. The hold was just big enough to hold a single one of the arrowhead-shaped Incarnation strike launches, but they hadn’t expected to find one entirely intact. The anonymous bounty hadn’t specified how complete a wreck was needed.

Varinia, busy making a series of minute manual course changes to line up on the target object, nevertheless whistled as they drew close. “This is the jackpot, Hugh. Look at it.”

Hugh looked up at the forward viewpanel, and couldn’t help but agree. Tumbling slowly, the dead Jericho bomber dead ahead looked almost completely intact, though with its amidships badly torn up by what looked like railgun fire that had penetrated its starboard armor paneling, scythed through the machinery and crew within, and burst out the other side, taking most of the port-side hull structure with it. Despite the damage, the wrecked strike craft was essentially in one piece, and it looked like its ventral weapons bay might even be intact. If that bay contained live ship-killer torpedoes, Hugh knew they could get paid for the operation twice, provided he could extract them from the craft without blowing anything up.

As the distance ticked down, Hugh glanced back down to his console only occasionally. He wondered whether the crew of the Jericho had died instantly, or if one or two of them had lingered in the dead craft until their oxygen ran out. He wondered whether their bodies were still aboard, and how he could dispose of them hygienically and respectfully. Varinia wouldn’t care – she thought of the Incarnation as akin to the cruel underground which had turned her into a monster, and not without reason – but Hugh thought it important to be concerned with such things.

“Final approach.” Varinia made a last adjustment, reduced their relative velocity, then sat back as the Jericho vanished below Dragović’s bow. A moment later, the ship lurched and began to tumble as their target connected with the mesh scoop.

Hugh slapped his palm on the control to retract the scoop, watching on a secondary camera feed as the entangled wreck began to slide into the ship’s hold. “We got it.”

Varinia breathed a sigh of relief, probably already imagining how much more human she could make herself with her cut of the payout.

Hugh turned in his chair to congratulate Varinia on a perfect approach when several alarms on his console began to wail. “Aw, Hells. Looks like sentry buoys, and they’re not Navy.”

Varinia’s pale face became even paler. “The Incarnation doesn’t-” She interrupted herself, wheeling the little ship around and putting it on the fastest course to the system’s periphery. “Pirates, Hugh. God have mercy if they catch us.”

Before the war, there hadn’t been pirates on the Frontier for nearly two decades, but Hugh didn’t doubt she was right. Varinia, as a native of the Silver Strand and a firsthand witness of the cruel economy of the place’s outlaws, knew piratical activity when she saw it.