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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 4: Confrontation on the Docks

    It was late afternoon, and the sun was gradually sinking lower in the sky. The ship’s loading was almost complete, with only one more rack of rubber tree saplings to be loaded. Joseph regarded the racks already in the cargo bay with an expression of resignation. He wasn’t looking forward to the extra work the cargo involved, but at least it paid well; he and Tyrone would be only one or two more runs from being able to buy a second ship.
    Several dock workers walked through the cargo bay inspecting the irrigation connections on the racks already loaded. They were leaving nothing to chance, for which he was grateful. He didn’t really know that much about the irrigation system, and didn’t want to mess with it any more than they absolutely had to.
    “Almost finished.” Randal, the dock foreman who had been directing the loading of their ship all day, made the announcement as he joined Joseph on the decking inside the cargo bay. “The lift operator radioed that he just picked up the last rack at the other side of the docks and he’s on his way back.”
    “Good to hear.” Tyrone wasn’t the only one who had been concerned about the delicate nature of the plants. The port administrators hadn’t been willing to take responsibility for storing them, concerned about the damage one errant lift vehicle or cargo container might do. They had insisted the farm deliver them the day of the shipment, so each rack had to come all the way across the port.
    “Yeah. Sorry for the delays. I don’t know why the office folk couldn’t just think of somewhere out of the way to stash these until you got here.”
    “It’s inconvenient.” Joseph nodded. “Still, I can understand their position. It’s expensive cargo to damage.”
    About that moment a dark gray luxury sedan turned into the docking bay. Both Joseph and Randal looked up to watch it approach. Joseph felt the nervous lurch of being caught at something. It rapidly gave way to angry resolve.
    Randal frowned slightly. “What’s this about? Private vehicles aren’t allowed to drive around the port unless they belong to one of the ships at dock.”
    “I have a guess. When you get a chance, tell the office they may want to screen the security staff again.” He slid his phone from the pocket of his jacket and dialed Tyrone.
    “Yes?” Tyrone dragged out the word a bit as he answered.
    “Looks like they’re here to argue. Grab a rifle and come back to the cargo bay, would you?”
    “On the way.” 
    The line clicked dead as the sedan stopped, still a good distance from the bottom of the last open loading door. Joseph offered a quick prayer of thanks that he’d had the presence of mind to close the rest as they stopped using them. 
    “I’ll radio security,” Randal commented. “I get the impression we’re going to need them. We don’t particularly want a gun battle breaking out in the port. There’s a lot of expensive things that could get broken.”
    Sure enough, Terrence emerged from the back of the sedan. Three more men who probably served as his bodyguards and bouncers at the club accompanied him. They looked like exactly the kind of thugs Joseph would expect to be involved in such a business. Tough enough, but without much in the way of training. They were violent, and would be happy enough to administer beatings to people who crossed their boss, but their loyalty was not to be relied on.
    “I remember you.” Terrence examined Joseph through narrowed eyes. “You were at the diner this morning.”
    “That would make you Taylor Reed then.” Joseph watched for, and saw, the anger flash across the man’s face before he schooled himself back to a neutral expression. In a gang that operated on intimidation, to be feared by and outsider was to be respected by those in the club. To be considered insignificant by the same outsider was to lose standing. Joseph would make certain Terrence lost plenty today. 
    “Terrence,” he corrected 
    “Whatever.” Joseph dismissed, eyeing him with evident distaste.
    “You have something on board your ship that belongs to me.”
    “No, I don’t.”
    “Don’t play dumb with me.” Terrence’s voice rapidly rose to yelling at the starman. “I saw the security tapes. That’s the truck Allison got into.” He pointed through the door behind Joseph at the pickup parked in an alcove at the back of the cargo bay. “You have her here, and you’re going to hand her over. Now.”
    “No pimp gives me orders, Travis. I will not hand her over so you can turn her into a call girl against her will.” 
    The thug’s face flashed angrily again when he used the wrong name, but he didn’t correct him a second time. “She isn’t going to be a call girl.” Terrence’s voice was now quiet and dangerous.
    “I vividly recall you trying to pressure her into dancing in a strip club.” Joseph shifted his stance slightly so that he was actually facing the pimp. “I also recall several statements, classics from the field of forcing vulnerable young girls into prostitution, emerging from your ugly mug. So if that wasn’t the intent, what was it? You’re going to have a great deal of difficulty convincing me it was anything innocent.”
    “I won’t try then.” Terrence’s face took on a confident, self-satisfied expression. “Allison Wilkins has already been sold to an offworld buyer. Specifically, a boss in the Ventalian Mafia.” Joseph was actually a little unnerved by that; the Ventalians were a dangerous criminal organization, with a presence on many unaffiliated planets Joseph and Tyrone had visited. “He’ll be here to pick up his order at the end of the month. He specified he wanted her to be able to work a pole, which is why I’m forcing her on stage tonight.
    “She’s not the only girl we’re selling to them either,” he boasted. “The Ventalian Mafia is a big client, and bringing them in as a customer is going to significantly increase my status in the Temoran Kindred. They’ve already paid, and it’s a deal I still intend to make.” Terrence had raised his voice a little at a time as he spoke, and it was just below a shout now. “So unless you want an organized crime syndicate chasing you, hand her over.”
    Many of the dock workers who had been checking irrigation lines drifted over to see what was happening. Joseph wouldn’t be surprised if Allison and Tyrone had been able to hear it further forward in the ship. Tyrone needed to hurry up too. The situation was getting tense and Joseph wanted their side to be the first with weapons out. It couldn’t be taking him this long to find a rifle. They were scattered all over the ship, in hidden compartments within bulkheads, as a security measure against boarding.
    Looking down the ramp at Terrence, Joseph only snorted. “Temoran Kindred? What kind of stupid name is that? It sounds like something a fifteen-year-old would come up with. As for the Ventalian Mafia, I’m not overly concerned about them either. They know better than to follow where we’re going.” That at least was true. The organization didn’t venture into the Teton Sector. “You’re going to have to disappoint them”
    Terrence looked angrily back up the ramp at him, fists clenched. “There is no disappointing them.”
    Joseph shrugged. “Well, I guess it’s either going to be you killing them or them killing you, Todd. I’d say I was sorry that you’ll be losing face with your bosses, but the truth is I’m not. I wish you luck with not dying though.”
    “The law is a lax thing on this planet. You’re interfering with my business. If I kill you, that explanation will be good enough for the authorities. If they bother to investigate.”
    “I don’t think you want to try that,” Tyrone said from Joseph’s left. He looked back and was relieved by the sight of Tyrone, taking cover against the cargo bay door, with a rifle pointed out at the gangsters. 
    Two of the bodyguards had been reaching for weapons, and now took their hands carefully away from their jackets. Joseph took advantage of the momentary distraction to slip his pistol out of its holster. “Much better,” Tyrone growled in satisfaction. “I don’t want to see any of you with a weapon.”
    Suddenly the air was filled by the sound of an engine, and the massive lift turned into the docking bay carrying the last rack of seedlings. The driver rolled toward the standoff obliviously, and Terrence’s friends edged nervously away from his path.
    Randal cursed. “I should have radioed to warn him. Completely forgot he was on his way already.”
    “Block that, block it,” Terrence yelled at his men. He ran into the path of the lift as it approached, and his men followed. The lift slowed and stopped not far from them.
    The driver, whose name Joseph didn’t know, popped the door open and stepped down. “What’s the big idea here?” he yelled. “Unless this is your ship, and I know full well it isn’t, you aren’t allowed in the bay. Get out of my way or I’ll run you over.”
    Terrence drew himself up and adopted a self-important air. “The Temoran Kindred is forbidding the loading of this ship our property aboard is returned to us. Go back the way you came or wait until our demands are met.”
    Joseph was growing very tired of Terrence referring to Allison as his property. With his gun already drawn this time it took him conscious effort not to shoot the little creep. Bu it wasn’t the right move for now; they had the upper hand, and the port wouldn’t appreciate him starting an avoidable gunfight.
    Fortunately neither Randal nor the lift driver were taking Terrence’s bullying. “Temoran Kindred isn’t in charge of this port,” the driver replied. “Your ships dock here though, and if you keep holding us up I promise you that privilege will be revoked.”
    “You will not continue loading this ship,” Terrence insisted. “Not until we have searched it and our assets are returned to us. If you try, we’ll kill you.”
    “If your goons try that, I’m fairly sure the owners of this ship will kill them first.” Randal had walked down to the lift to join the argument. “The one with the rifle sounded serious about not seeing any weapons in your hands. 
    “Your presence on this dock is already a violation of port policy. You and the Temoran Kindred will be held responsible for any incident resulting from it. If there is any damage to this ship, the cargo being loaded or our facility, we’ll charge you for the damage and you’ll lose the right to land ships here. The same applies if there is any injury to our workers or the ship’s personnel and passengers.”
    Terrence only stared at the foreman. He’d overestimated his power, Joseph realized. He must have been used to dealing with people like the owner of the diner, already too afraid of him personally or the Temoran Kindred to do anything but roll over. He didn’t know how to react when his demands were ignored.
    “ can’t do that.” Terrence’s feeble, spluttering protest drew only laughter from the port workers. “We’ll...we’ll burn this port down. We’ll have men out hunting the owners, the managers and their families.”
    “The Temoran Kindred will not be willing or able to follow through on either of those threats.” Randal looked down his nose at the gangster. “They might try hunting down this freighter, but Tetonite captains have a reputation for protecting their ships. I know enough about the Kindred’s presence on this port to know your superiors won’t make good on any of your threats against us. They need this port too much for that.”
    Randal looked at the driver. “I have an alternative suggestion. He’ll never be able to propose that the Kindred attack us if he’s dead. Run him over.”
    The driver nodded and stepped back into the lift. Terrence’s entourage had a short race to be the first out of the vehicle’s path. Terrence held his ground until the lift started rolling again, then dashed out of the way with a long string of curses.
    While the gangsters stood around trying to decide what to do, port security showed up. Eight men dressed in white-and-black body armor marched into the docking bay. Joseph noted that the body armor was not particularly good and the men were out of step, but Terrence’s thugs didn’t recognize that. They cast fearful looks at the approaching security squad. The squad leader spoke with Randal very briefly, then walked over to Terrence.
    “You’ve been ordered off the property. We will escort you to the gate. You will wait there for someone to retrieve your vehicle.”
    Terrence almost went quietly, but as the guard was issuing the orders he was looking into the ship’s cargo bay. As the lift started to roll back out, Joseph was suddenly aware someone was standing behind him. Allison had finally come to investigate the source of all the yelling.
    “There! I told you they were hiding her!” Terrence rapidly lost it, screeching at the guard and the foreman and pointing at the girl. “She has to come with us!” He broke free of the security guard holding him and made to run up the ramp and drag her off the ship.
    Joseph raised his pistol. The only thing that saved Terrence was the lift. It rolled into the gangster’s path as it backed out of the hold, and he stopped short to avoid running into the side of it. Joseph lowered his gun again, not wanting to shoot the driver or the lift itself by accident. By the time it started toward the bay entrance and cleared Joseph’s line of sight, two of the guards had grabbed Terrence and started dragging him out of the bay.
    “No! You can’t do this!” Terrence shouted at the guards, trying to kick them as they purposefully pulled him backward toward the gate. “She’s an asset of the Temoran Kindred. Arrest them, she has to be returned to us!”
    Allison watched with openmouthed astonishment. The guards resolutely ignored his shrieked demands, and gestured to his thugs to follow him. They fell in willingly behind their boss.
    “I’ll have the Ventalian Mafia after you Allison! Don’t forget that. You haven’t heard the last of this you little...” One of the guards, tired of Terrence’s stream of invective, punched him in the mouth, and he finally fell silent.
    “Well, that went well,” Randal commented. Tyrone shouldered his rifle and came to join them, and Allison stepped out from behind Joseph. Joseph holstered his gun again. “The Temoran Kindred has spies on the docks and connections to pirates in the system and beyond. Be careful on your way out.”
    “We will.” Joseph nodded. “Thanks for your help.” He looked first at Allison, then Tyrone. “Well, we take of in an hour. Here ends the story of our run-in with Tabby Reed.”
    “Okay, now I know you’re getting the name wrong on purpose,” Allison snickered. “Tabby is a cat.”

Published: January 28 2018

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