Published: October 21 2018
Maps on the windshield showed Garden Variety Animal’s position as Tyrone checked their course. Various system failures could cause a ship to deviate from the programmed path, as could simple limitations in the computer systems and astronomic maps used to navigate. Starship crews, even on the smallest ships, made it a point to check several times per day that they were still headed where they wanted to go.
Footsteps in the corridor made him twist his head. Justine entered the cockpit, looked around and slid the door closed behind her. He lifted his brows in question as she sat at the copilot’s station. If she was checking for Joseph before talking, he knew the topic.
“I got a message from our PICTA contact,” she said. “Are we still going to make Vermillion on time?”
“We’re still on course. What did she say?”
“They already have something for us to move. A small package to pick up at Vermillion and take onward. It’s computer components of some kind for their ships.”
The couple called the logistics contact Peter provided barely two days after talking to him. There just hadn’t been that much for them to discuss, as it turned out. Once they realized working with PICTA wasn’t nearly the risk they’d feared, there wasn’t much reason not to get involved. The logistics team made the scheduling easy as well, they operated much like any other customer would in scheduling loads.
“That’s exciting,” Tyrone said. “Our first adventure in the world of secrecy and clandestine activity.”
“It is a thrill, even if what we’re doing isn’t that exciting,” Justine laughed. “It gives us a chance to do a little good in the world. Not that we don’t otherwise, but I can’t think of people much more in need.”
“Nope. If the pickup point is Vermillion Station, will we need to get Joseph out of the way?”
“We shouldn’t. We’ll get the package at the same warehouse as our actual shipment, and he’ll be off the ship by then. He said this morning that since we know the dock number for the ore hauler he’ll just move everything he’s taking with him onto the dock like we did at Orson Station. That way the two of us can keep moving.”
“That’s helpful of him, and convenient. I saw him moving boxes earlier, is he piling them in the cargo bay?”
Justine nodded. “By the airlock doors. We’re doing a lot of moving lately.” She fiddled with her wedding ring, a troubled expression on her face. “We could just tell him, you know.”
PICTA’s logistics team told the couple they should keep their activity for the association as secret as possible, but were allowed to tell close friends and family. Justine had asked if Joseph was involved with the association, but the answer was predictable. PICTA’s policy was not to share information about who worked with them, even if the recipient of the information also worked with them. Risk was unavoidable in work for the association, and they did their best to minimize it. They would only learn someone was part of the support network if they had to meet. A perfectly reasonable stance, but not the answer they hoped for.
“We could, I don’t think I want to though.”
“I’m not sure I do either. I just don’t like hiding things from him. Why don’t you want to tell him?”
“At first, because he wasn’t telling us about whatever he was doing for them.” Tyrone smiled wryly at his own pettiness. “Now, it’s because I’m not so sure he’s actually doing anything of the kind. He never said one way or the other. It’s probably for the best he didn’t, because if he’d said ‘no’ at the time I wouldn’t have believed him.”
“I was thinking that even if he is, he’ll try to talk us out of it for safety’s sake and I don’t want to have that argument.”
“Neither do I,” Tyrone agreed. “The more I think about it, the more it seems he isn’t working for them. Initially it seemed like an easy call, it’s exactly the kind of thing he would do. The problem is that Joseph doesn’t hide what he’s thinking about very well, and he hasn’t said two words about PICTA since we left Orson Station. He’d talk about them if he’d volunteered.”
“The only times I’ve heard him reference PICTA since he talked to Peter were about Peter’s comments on the asteroid mines.” Justine slumped back in her seat, looking at the ceiling. “I think he’s involved, and won’t tell us to keep from worrying us. You’re right though, usually he has to talk about what’s on his mind.”
“Lately everything he’s talked about is related to the ore hauler and our business,” Tyrone said. “He’s moved his focus mainly to that, and there’s plenty to occupy his mind. Purchases for the ship, and all the weapons and equipment that have to come separately, hiring the crew and coordinating everything. Maybe he’s just doing a better job of hiding it than normal, but it’s just as possible that he kept himself out of trouble for once.”
“He spent a lot of time thinking about that after the pirates, didn’t he?”
“Yes.” Tyrone frowned and rubbed his chin. “Now that you mention it he hasn’t talked about that lately either. He was worried his behavior would cause trouble for us or his new crew. Maybe he decided to avoid trouble from now on, and realized work for PICTA had trouble written all over it.”
“Maybe. I still think he just isn’t telling us. Based on our own experience so far, PICTA is fairly structured, so at least it’s planned instead of him just going off half-cocked.”
“It’s just as likely he’s not involved at all,” Tyrone disagreed. “Either way, I don’t think we should tell him that we are. If he is, he’s not telling us, and maybe it’s better that we don’t know. We can’t accidentally give each other away somehow. If he’s not, then it will only make him worry about us more. Without the context we have, he’ll magnify the danger beyond the reality.”
Justine thought that over for a long time, and finally sighed. “You’re right, but I still don’t like hiding things from him.”
With no more to discuss, the silence dragged out. Tyrone turned back to the console to finish the rest of the system checks. Halfway through a test of the life support system, an idea struck him. He checked the door to make sure it was still closed before he spoke.
“We could try to push him a bit. Talk about how the ore hauler will operate, what he does with it, and the dangers he expects to face. I only know that loosely, I’ve let him deal with that. If he tells us he’s helping PICTA, we tell him we are too. Otherwise, whether he is or isn’t, we don’t tell him and we let it lie.”
“Alright.” Relief colored Justine’s voice. “I guess that’s a better way to handle it. None of us will worry about the others more than we would already.”
“Now we just need a chance to talk to him.” Tyrone returned to the system checks and considered when they could find an opening. Joseph hadn’t had time for much of anything lately.
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried about it. Later that evening they found Joseph in a living room armchair with a book, somewhere he hadn’t been very often on this trip. They sat on the couch and occupied themselves with their own pastimes for a bit, so it wouldn’t seem that they’d come just to interrogate him.
Eventually Tyrone started the conversation. “You haven’t been in here much lately Joseph. Is everything ready with the new ship now? That’s kept you busy for most of the trip.”
“Pretty much everything.” He glanced up only momentarily to answer. “Everything but the name. I’m hoping a little reading will bring me inspiration.”
“You want to write a new book of the Bible?” Justine joked. “I don’t think it really needs any additions.” All three laughed.
“Not that kind of inspiration,” Joseph corrected.
“What kind of danger are you expecting out in the fringe systems?” Tyrone asked. “I looked at the weapon selection you picked out, but I never asked about the logic behind it.”
Joseph reluctantly stuck a bookmark in the tattered volume he was reading. “I did a lot of research on the types of threats we can expect before I set that up, and more since. The biggest risk is piracy. It’s the most common criminal activity in those systems. Peter was right that they are havens for a lot of other things, but piracy is still the biggest. Other types of criminals also don’t commonly target freight vessels.”
“I thought a bulk cargo ship would be hard for pirates to sell once they had it,” Justine said.
“It can be,” Joseph admitted. “Unfortunately it’s still worth taking one for most pirates, if they can pull it off. Fringe systems are close to a lot of other nations or unaffiliated systems. Buyers in many are far less concerned about where or how a seller came by their goods than a Tetonite buyer would be.”
“Metal ore doesn’t spoil or go out of style either,” Tyrone said. “Sooner or later they would be able to sell it off, even if it had to be a little at a time.”
“Exactly. So it can be well worth it for them to take an ore freighter.” Joseph sighed and rubbed his head. “I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to about different kinds of piracy too. The kind we’re used to in the Teton Sector is when pirates cripple a ship, subdue the crew, transfer anything valuable they can find to their own ship and make a run for it. I thought to make an ore hauler worthwhile the pirates would need a similarly-sized ship to take the cargo.
“Turns out that isn’t the most common method. With few to no patrols or communication relays in that part of space, it’s hard for freighters to call for help. It’s much more common for pirates to take the whole ship.”
“The whole ship?” Justine shot an alarmed look at Tyrone, and he groaned inwardly. They were getting a lot of information, but not the kind they wanted. To top it off, they would have far more reason to worry about Joseph than they’d guessed.
“They aren’t pressed for time, since help is a long way off,” Joseph continued. “I couldn’t believe how inventive they can be about the capture process, either. Sometimes there is no attack by the other ship. I read about one case where there wasn’t another ship at all. Pirates stowed away at a port, waited until the ship was loaded, then captured it and sailed it to an unaffiliated system to sell the cargo.”
“A pretty daring plan,” Tyrone said. “No chance to back out if something goes sideways. You were taking notes about security measures, I hope?”
“Absolutely. That one is fairly easy to prevent with controlled access to the ship when you’re in port. We have coded access and cameras on every entry point, both things that ship didn’t have. I also took the precaution of grates for the cargo transfer points, although trying to enter a bulk freighter through the cargo area is much more likely to end with dead pirates than a stolen ship.”
“Yeah, we wouldn’t want to short our customers by delivering a couple hundred pounts of pirate instead of ore. You won’t need to worry about fighter attacks will you? They’d have no good way to remove the cargo.”
“It’s less of a concern, but if we’re hauling precious metals they might still try. Even with the small hold of a fighter, they could live for a while on what they could take. Since those metals have consumer value, they aren’t as difficult to sell. Cargo that’s only useful in an industrial process tends to be purchased in large amounts only.”
“You aren’t painting a very reassuring picture of this enterprise, Joseph.” Tyrone gave his partner a nervous look. “It seems like every other ship out there has every reason to try and take you out.”
“Sorry. I do have one reassurance to offer.” Joseph smiled, a predatory glint in his eye. “Tetonite ships that operate in these regions have an impressive record of resisting attack. Out of hundreds operating, only two have been attacked with anything resembling success in the last ten years. The pirates know that reputation, too.”
“They don’t agree with the captain of that corvette then? He didn’t find Teton Sector freighters all that difficult.”
“Until us anyway,” Joseph amended. “These pirates certainly wouldn’t agree. To them only someone desperate or crazy would consider an attack on a Teton Sector ship. We have a stellar record of putting pirates out of business permanently. I also made sure our ship is in the top tier of armament. We only have the one, after all. If we are attacked, our odds of survival are very good.”
“Good,” Tyrone nodded. It was, but as Joseph returned to his book Tyrone exchanged a sad look with Justine. If Joseph was working with PICTA, he had some reason not to tell them. For one moment he considered asking outright, but the abrupt change of subject would make Joseph suspicious enough to realize he and Justine were. If he was honest with himself, he also didn’t want to ask. The more he considered it the more it seemed Joseph wasn’t working with the anti-trafficking group. Still, if Joseph answered “no” right now, Tyrone would think he was lying.