WARNING:
CONTENT IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. POSTED SECTIONS MAY UNDERGO EDITING. YE BE WARNED.

In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 51: A Suspicious Council

    “We’re under the feeder.” Joseph was focused on the monitors that displayed Great Mandan Laker’s position relative to the station, adjusting it with small thruster bursts to get her lined up. This was going to be much easier than at Four Machines. With only one hopper operational, they didn’t have to connect to multiple feed pipes simultaneously. To hit one was a fairly simple task.
    “Alright,” the control room operator on the station replied. “The clamps are set, you can connect whenever you’re ready.”
    “Rodger.” As soon as they were positioned correctly Joseph did exactly that. A little noise could be heard from the first intake port as it bumped into the feeder, but the impact was so slight that the coffee in Joseph’s mug didn’t even ripple. He allowed himself a brief moment of pride. His skills had improved.
    It took a while after that to start the cargo transfer, and he was in constant communication with the station until it was set up. Joseph privately thought the miners on this station didn’t know what they were doing. It took a long time for them to get the transfer started, much longer than the crew at Four Machines. Still, it could have been due to their old and faulty equipment.
    While he waited Joseph spared a look out the windshield to watch an unusual sunrise. At the station’s current position the system’s star was ahead of Great Mandan Laker. The flat wall of the station stretched out ahead on the starboard, and as it rotated more of the sun became visible. The side of the asteroid appeared very imposing until, as his eyes traveled further down, it narrowed so much it seemed thinner than a dinner plate before vanishing in the glow of the sun. The ship’s computer continuously dimmed the windshield as more sunlight hit it to protect the crew’s eyes.
    The others arrived on the bridge as the transfer was set up and took seats around the room. Joseph and Rebecca did not mentioned the cluster of ships to them yet. It was clearly a touchy matter for the station’s personnel, so it was best not to talk about it with the radio channel still open.
    Finally the clatter of ore falling into the hold became audible, and after a few more minutes it was running smoothly. After a few final instructions passed between the ship and the station, Joseph closed the channel and the risk of hot mics was ended. He turned his attention to his crew.
    “Alright, what’s so important that you needed us all on the bridge?” Gregory asked. “You don’t need us all assembled to reassign watch shifts.”
    “Well, we did all agree to stay awake and on duty most of the time when we’re docked with stations,” Nathan said. “Still, I didn’t think we’d all need to be on the bridge for that.”
    “No, Gregory’s right, it’s something out of the ordinary. On the way in to the station, we spotted some unusual activity around one of the mine’s asteroid cups.” Joseph sent an image from the telescope footage to the windshield, and the rest of the crew got a look at the ships.
    Charlie’s eyebrows rose. “That’s not normal.”
    “No, not really,” Samuel agreed. “Did any of them have an active transponder?”
    “Not a one.” Joseph shook his head. “As far as we could tell all the ships are offline entirely, they didn’t even give much in the way of heat signatures.”
    “That’s a lot of ships to all be clustered around one part of the station at all, let alone with all of them offline.” Samuel gave the screen the same puzzled look Joseph had when he first spotted the cluster on the telescope. “I don’t think most mines have many in the first place. Did you get any hints of what they’re doing with them?”
    “We asked the station traffic controller about it and he had a mild panic attack.” Joseph still found the man’s nervousness surprising. “Based on the reaction I’d guess they’re involved in something illegal. I didn’t push it any further after that. Nobody likes nosy freighter captains.”
    “Something you know from experience,” Charlie snorted.
    “You’re not wrong,” Joseph admitted.
    “That’s not necessarily a bad thing.” Rebecca gave Charlie a look that clearly showed her disapproval.
    “No, it’s not.” Charlie made a placating gesture with one hand. “Just something to be aware of. ‘Something illegal’ is probably a safe bet. Did the station give you a reason for all the ships?”
    “He said they’re out doing repair work on the cup,” Joseph nodded.
    “Well, not exactly.” Rebecca gave Joseph a confused look, as though he’d forgotten something, then shrank back slightly as everyone looked at her.
    “What do you mean?” Charlie frowned at her.
    “Well, Joseph asked if the ships were out there because of repair work. The miner on the radio didn’t volunteer that as an explanation, he just said that yes, the cup needed repairs. He couldn’t give us an answer when Joseph asked what they were repairing. I thought it sounded like he just jumped on the first explanation available.”
    “She’s right,” Joseph nodded. “I’d forgotten that. Either way, do you buy it?”
    Charlie shook his head. “Not really, and with what Rebecca said about you leading him into the answer, definitely not. Only major repairs to a cup require ships at all, and if it needed that we would be able to see some kind of damage to it. Anything else would be fixed from the inside.”
    “That’s what we thought, but I couldn’t be certain there wasn’t something I didn’t know about that would explain it.”
    “Nope, you were right on.” Charlie crossed his arms and walked closer to the windshield to examine the image. “So, what’s your plan?”
    “Well, from my experience as a nosy freighter captain I’ve learned it’s better to be nosy quietly. Push people for answers and they get angry. Take answers with a telescope and they don’t know to be angry. I’ll set up image recognition to go over all the footage we have from the telescope. That will locate any registration numbers or symbols that may identify the ships and run them against the databases we have. It will also try to identify the make and model.
    “While we’re docked with the station, I want whoever is on duty here to go over the footage manually as well. We might catch something that the computer doesn’t. Registration numbers that have been painted over, signs of damage, anything that seems out of the ordinary. It might give us a hint at what those ships are doing here.”
    “Worth a try,” Gregory said, and the rest of the crew nodded.
    “How worried about this are you?” Nathan asked. “It’s not like we have a lot else to do up here while we’re loaded, but that’s a lot of effort to go through.”
    “My guess is that they’re smugglers, so not terribly.” Joseph tried to look less worried than he actually was as he said that. “The problem is, I’m not sure how worried I ought to be. I just want to know what’s going on.”
    “Can’t argue with that,” Nathan nodded. “Should we make any change to our shifts or keep them the same?”
    “Keep them the same as we planned for now. I don’t see any reason to change them.” Joseph knew some of them were better than others with computers, but speed was not a necessity for the footage review. “Rebecca and I have a few hours left, so the rest of you can go back to whatever you were doing. I wanted everyone to be aware.”
    “Alright.”
    Most of the men left the bridge to return to their interrupted pursuits, and Rebecca pulled up the telescope footage on one of her monitors. Charlie still stood at the extreme front of the bridge to examine the image on the windshield as closely as possible. “Very strange,” he commented quietly as Joseph joined him. “I wasn’t on ore haulers for all that many years, but I never saw anything similar. ‘Repairs’ my foot.”
    “I had hoped to get a little reassurance from you.” Joseph sighed and glared at the screen. “I guess this isn’t one of those days.”
    “It’s not. I’m glad for the confirmation that you can keep your head when danger shows up. The captain’s reaction dictates the behavior of the rest of the crew. It was a good move to downplay your concerns a little, even if most of us can tell you’re more worried than you say.”
    “Thanks. I’m not that great an actor, so it won’t surprise me if nobody bought it. Hopefully my worries are unfounded.”
    “Don’t count on it.”
    “Yeah, I hear you. There’s way too much criminal activity in fringe systems for this to be entirely innocent. I just hope it doesn’t threaten us.”
    “On that, I think we’ll have more luck. Whatever they’re mixed up in, they need the mine as a cover for it. Any interference with scheduled deliveries will bring attention they don’t want, and we have a customer in Islinglonde expecting us in a week. If something happened to us, he’d report it and their ships would be out to search.”
    “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” Joseph was reassured somewhat by the reminder that the mine needed them. However it functioned, deliveries had to go on uninterrupted for it to remain so.
    “We’ll be fine.” Charlie became more confident with the second assertion, and Joseph’s was growing as well. “None of the possible scenarios get around the usefulness of the mine as a cover story. It might not be essential, but we’re just some random ore freighter. There’s no reason to surrender that to attack us.”
    “No, and I’m grateful for it. You know, it’s odd how fast things change. Not that long ago I would have been excited at a chance to test Laker’s firepower.”
    “I think you still would be.” Charlie turned to size up the young captain. “You’re a young man. Like many young men you place a relatively low value on your own life. The idea of trying yourself in that kind of struggle brings more excitement than fear. The difference is that you have a crew. You aren’t the type of person that will extend that casual disregard to the lives of others.”
    Weeks of self-reflection and fear that he’d put the crew in danger showed there was some truth in the old timer’s observation, but Joseph shook his head. “That didn’t stop me when it was Tyrone and I on Garden Variety Animal. It might be part of it, but only combined with the fact that now I take the time to think about it.”
    “You’d know better than I,” Charlie admitted. He turned back to the screen. “Whatever brought it about, your focus is in the right place now, and I’m glad to see that.”
    “Thank you.” Joseph also returned his gaze to the image of the immobile ships. “You’re the most experienced starman here, any of those ships catch your eye?”
    Charlie pointed to a pair at the front of the formation. “These two look like older designs from Islinglonde, so I’d suggest we take a close look at them. Islinglonde has fairly strict requirements for registration marks and the like.” He moved his finger to one at the back. “This design looks familiar to me, but I can’t quite recall where it’s from or where I’ve seen it. Give me a while and I might come up with it. The others don’t look familiar.”
    “Well that’s as good a place as any to start. Rebecca’s already hard at work on that, I ought to join her.”
    “Good luck.” Charlie abandoned his contemplation of the windshield and made for the bridge door. “I’ll be back when it’s my shift.”
    Joseph walked back to his position, then grimaced as he realized his coffee cup was empty. He didn’t recall that he’d even taken a sip since they arrived at the station. “Can you hold down the fort for a few minutes? I’m out of coffee.”
    “Yeah, that’s fine.” Rebecca held out her cup. “Bring me a refill too?”
    “No problem.”

Published: February 24 2019

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© 2019 by Stephen Schamber