Whitley’s Guide – Vulture

This article originally appeared in Jump Point 7.8.

Drake Interplanetary Vulture

THE HUNT

Most spacecraft have a common point of origin – they’re developed to military specification or they’re designed to fill a market need for civilians or corporate groups. The Drake Interplanetary Vulture has a different story – its development originates from a rush to complete a treasure hunt. On the 9th of August 2895, the Terra-flagged freighter Empire Slipper suffered what was later determined to be an unlikely cascade of system failures which resulted in the bridge terminals receiving a completely incorrect set of navigation overlays. The error caused Slipper’s navigation officer to chart a course into a dense asteroid belt within close proximity to the danger zone of a red giant’s corona. A debris strike subsequently disabled the aging freighter’s shield generators and unfortunately delivered a dose of fatal radiation to the crew. Empire Slipper was left adrift, its specific location unknown. As the freighter was known to be carrying a wealth of precious metals and a consignment of rare artwork, intense media interest and a massive search and recovery operation followed. After eight months of searches, a UEEN picket ship identified the wreckage of the Slipper adrift in the irradiated debris belt, putting an end to conspiracy theories that the freighter had been hijacked. However, it quickly became clear that the region was practically inaccessible to any dedicated salvage ship with enough protection to survive the operation. MISC, the transport’s builder, offered a ten million credit bounty to anyone capable of recovering the black box data recorder in an effort to explain what had happened.

Unexpectedly, upstart spacecraft manufacturer Drake Interplanetary came to the rescue. Seeking both the bounty and the salvage rights to the Slipper’s cargo, an elite team convened on Borea to create a makeshift spacecraft capable of solving this peculiar problem. The basis for this oneoff construction was an existing AS-1 Cutlass prototype, Vertical Landing Test 3 (VLT-3). With all testing equipment removed, VLT-3 quickly became a specialized platform intended to reach the Empire Slipper and recover its cargo. Heavy shield generators replaced much of the prototype ship’s standard cargo capacity and a pair of versatile remote manipulator arms were bolted to the prow. The result was something unlike any other spacecraft currently flying: an over-shielded, underpowered amalgamation that was small enough to navigate the debris field while keeping its crew of two safe. What’s more, VLT-3 could engage in the necessary salvage operations using its external arms without requiring EVA, which was made impossible by the amount of radiation involved.

Fourteen months after the Empire Slipper disappeared, Drake’s test crew began salvage operations from a hastily established modular space station positioned just outside the danger zone. Over the course of thirty-six perilous expeditions, VLT-3 repeatedly entered the debris field and carefully removed the Slipper’s flight recorders and then, one by one, the valuable cargo containers. Drake claimed and received salvage rights for the valuable cargo and promptly delivered the recovered flight recorders to MISC. However, the promised ten million credits did not materialize as Drake executives were ultimately taken to court over the bounty when it was discovered that they had covertly opened and copied the flight data aboard a runner ship before passing it along.

PRODUCTION MODELS

The success of VLT-3’s mission wasn’t only beneficial to Drake’s bottom line. Public fascination with the lost freighter gave the company’s recovery mission significant airplay and was seen as a positive reprieve for the corporation, which was battling accusations of profiting from piracy. For a time, Drake was seen as a positive if rough force just as the small personal spacecraft market was beginning to heat up. To play off this success, the company sent VLT-3, its paint seared off and hull covered with micrometeoroid impacts, on a nine system PR tour to be displayed at aerospace shows and museum exhibits.

Excitement over the feat faded and Drake soon found itself again mired in controversy. VLT-3 was put back into storage just as the corporation was again accused of supporting piracy following the coordinated destruction of a MISC Hull-D by four unmarked Cutlasses. The company seemed to have little interest in the formal development of a salvage ship and instead moved its focus to the Caterpillar command ship concept.

In 2932, an Aegis Dynamics Reclaimer, the General Dogsbody, made history with the single most profitable salvage mission in human history when it discovered and recovered a failed 22nd-century colony ship adrift in deep space. The ship’s crew became millionaires and minor celebrities overnight and the event prompted much greater interest in the previously uncelebrated task of space salvage. As interest in salvage boomed and crews began pooling money to purchase their own Reclaimer platforms, Drake executives realized they already had a more appealing option in their back pocket.

A team of aerospace engineers led by Drake’s in-house designer Sod Perkins began work on developing the VLT-3 concept into a standalone salvage spacecraft. While the new design would be built from the ground up and wouldn’t need the heavy shielding of the original, the overall layout and functionality would remain surprisingly similar to the prototype. The early manipulator arms were replaced with what Drake would ultimately call Rippers – stand-alone salvage booms supported by a Lariot tractor beam and Tomium scraper rig. These booms would allow the craft (soon named the Vulture) to identify, move, and cut space salvage and then store it in the ship’s rear bay. Like VLT-3, the production Vulture was oriented around shipboard controls rather than EVA support. The crew capacity was reduced from two to one, reinforcing the idea that a single pilot could operate a Vulture and potentially make their fortune the same way the Dogsbody’s crew had. A small rear living section would allow the solo operator to endure long voyages as salvage sites were rarely close to well-traveled spacelanes. Finally, the Vulture would feature maneuvering thrusters and an oversized shield generator to enable it to make careful movements not possible with larger ships like the Reclaimer.

Drake premiered the Vulture in 2938 with marketing that called back to the success of VLT-3, including stylizing the spacecraft’s name as VuLTur3 in some advertising. Public interest in salvage and personal fortune-seeking continued and orders quickly outpaced the production capacity at Borea. Within eight months, Drake was forced to open two remote factories to meet demand. While the company was roundly accused of over-promising inexperienced captains the chance to turn incredible profits by competing manufacturers, Vultures immediately found success with the discovery and parting of several high-profile hulls. These included a Genesis Starliner long thought destroyed and two Hull-As that had collided and spun away from their planned routes in an unexpected manner. These stories were major news and prompted continued interest in the Vulture.

In 2941, Drake launched the first updated model of the Vulture. While the first civilian release had been completely unarmed, the 2941 model added a pair of size one weapons mounts, which appealed to pilots who would be flying the ships in unsafe and unexplored areas of the galaxy. In 2943, the United Empire of Earth Navy requisitioned 300 Vultures for battlefield support operations. The military versions weren’t hardened and didn’t feature additional weapons as they were never intended for use in combat. Delivery of these ships began the following year where they immediately saw service with the fleet support arm, clearing destroyed spacecraft in the wake of ever-increasing battles with the Vanduul. Drake has continued to develop the government version of the Vulture, as the expectation is large-scale naval battles will only increase in frequency and furor in the years to come. The most recent civilian update was made for the 2949 model year, with the launch of the now-standard extended cab, which ups internal cargo capacity from 8 to 12 SCU. Drake currently offers a low-cost dealer upgrade for earlier Vultures to convert them to roughly the same capacity – a similar process has been made available for adding weapons mounts to the initial 2938 version.

 

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