CONTENT IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. POSTED SECTIONS MAY UNDERGO EDITING. YE BE WARNED.
In A Starship's Wake
By Stephen Schamber
Chapter 34: Questions And Secrecy
Orson Station’s lower levels were a little more upscale than the rest of the station. They still weren’t particularly fancy, as the station wasn’t a tourist destination. Business executives were the group they aimed to cater to, and there were no shortage of them visiting. Many companies had operations on the station that had to be checked up on occasionally. Joseph had seldom visited, even when they spent time on the station.
An Italian restaurant called Parello’s was where the PICTA operative had directed Joseph for their meeting. They served dinner only, and so were not open when he arrived. An employee noticed him as he approached the door and let him in once she learned his name. She led him into the dim interior with a remark that he was expected.
Parello’s was decorated with hardwood paneling and occasional brass accents. Planters filled with ferns and other plants Joseph could not name topped most of the low dividing walls between sections and each booth. Had the circumstances of his visit been ordinary, the atmosphere would seem perfect for family or even romantic dinners. At present, especially empty as it was, it seemed a good place for a clandestine meeting. It reminded him again how little he really knew of PICTA. Was this standard practice for them? It wouldn’t be a surprise.
The employee led him to a table in a back corner, where a bald man sat reviewing several notescreens and a lot of physical paper spread on the table in front of him. A soft-sided leather briefcase stood on the end of the table by the wall, open pockets exposing still more paper. When he detected their approach he wiped the screens of the electronic readers, neatly swept the paper documents into a pile and stood to greet them. As he stepped from behind his temporary desk he extended a hand, which Joseph shook.
“Thank you,” the man said to the employee, who nodded and scurried off to see to other tasks. Close enough now to see clearly, the middle aged man had a scar on the right side of his head and wore loose-fitting clothing that hid his build. “Thank you for coming, Mr. Essert. Please have a seat. My name is Peter, PICTA asked me to have a chat with you.”
“Just Peter?” Joseph lifted one eyebrow.
“Just Peter.” The man’s polite smile confirmed he was used to the question. “Peter from PICTA, if you like.”
“Very, yes.” Seated again, Peter set one notescreen before him and piled the rest on top of the stack of papers. “I doubt my parents predicted that when they picked the name, but all the same. Now, am I correct to say that you know what this meeting is about?”
“I can only think of one reason that PICTA would want to talk to me,” Joseph said.
“Good.” Peter pulled the briefcase toward him and slid a small electronic device out of one picket. “If it’s alright with you, I’ll record our conversation from this point forward. Otherwise I’ll have to type notes, which will take longer.” Joseph nodded, and he started the recording. “Alright. To get started, please tell me about all the events surrounding you and your partner transporting Allison off Temorran.”
The narrative took about ten minutes for Joseph to relate, beginning with his encounter with her and Terrence in the diner and ending with their dogfight. Peter from PICTA remained silent, and his face was so still throughout that Joseph couldn’t tell what he thought of what he was hearing. All the motion he made was to wave Joseph on any time he slowed down expecting a question.
“Quite an interesting adventure for you,” Peter said when Joseph finished.
“Well outside of our normal standards for a delivery, yes. I imagine you could tell us some things we could have done better.”
“I could, but it isn’t like you had a lot of time to consider each move. Many PICTA operations involve a month or more of planning, and there’s always something we could have done better or should have noticed ahead of time. Frankly, you did well. What were you planning to do with Allison once you got back to the Teton Sector? I know what you did do of course, from the reports forwarded from the Immigration office, but was that what you intended from the beginning?”
“Well, it would be a stretch to say we ‘intended’ anything until the next morning. That was when we started working on things like the Immigration paperwork. There was a lot of stuff that didn’t even occur to us in the immediate situation.”
“I noticed it was Immigration that reported the incident to us. Why didn’t you contact us yourselves? A lot of that process we could have provided help with.”
“Had we remembered from the start that PICTA existed, we would have.” Joseph grimaced, casting a reproachful look at a fern in the planter behind Peter. “As it turned out, Immigration had to remind us. We were mainly relying on the rules about hiring foreign crew to protect us if she was denied asylum. Under those she could travel the Teton Sector on Garden Variety Animal with no official status. We’d be responsible for her, and as long as we didn’t stay too long in one port that could continue indefinitely. I know that’s not really how it’s intended to work, but it would have given us enough time to find another solution.”
Peter raised his eyebrows. “You know those rules only apply to citizens of nations with favored trading status, right?”
Joseph froze momentarily. He had not, in fact. “I do now. Good thing it never came up.”
“Fortunately it would have worked. Temorran is one of the unaffiliated planets that has it.” The bald man checked his watch. “Alright, we have limited time so let’s move on.
“We did want to get an unfiltered account of those events from your and Tyrone’s perspectives, but there is another, more important topic I need to ask you about.” He picked up one of the notescreens and opened a document on it as Joseph wondered what else there could be. “Until we learned of Allison’s experience, we were not aware of any active human traffickers operating on Temorran.”
“You want to see if we can tell you anything about the Temorran Kindred’s operation,” Joseph guessed. A pang of dismay flashed through him. If they needed to ask him and Tyrone about that, had they been able to intercept the Ventalian Mafia’s transport carrying the other young women? That was the only significant piece of information the two had discovered.
Joseph sighed, heart heavy. “I don’t know anything beyond what we already told you through Immigration about the Ventalian ship.”
“You may know more than you think. I’ve read the reports, there was also a strip club and an apartment building, and those are still there. To be honest, I hope you know more than you think, because the information about the ship was sparse.
“It existed, it was owned by the Ventalian Mafia and it was probably using the same port that you did.” Peter ticked the items off on his fingers as he listed them. “Credit where it’s due, its existence is an important piece of information, but there wasn’t a lot to go on. PCITA likely would have had someone out to talk to you at Couradeen Station if the people who asked me to do it hadn’t been preoccupied chasing that lead.”
Joseph’s eyes snapped to Peter, hoping to find some hint of the outcome. His face was expressionless. Joseph opened his mouth to ask, but his interrogator had looked down at his notes and was already moving on.
Peter waved a hand at the notescreen. “I have a long list of questions to ask you, which I hope will help you call to mind some specifics. We have already discussed much of this with Allison, but you and Tyrone are seasoned starmen. You would be alert to things she is not, and might recall details she overlooked.
“A couple of things before we start. Earlier I just let you narrate the story; this time I won’t do that. Once you answer a question, I may ask follow up questions, and when our discussion is finished I’ll ask the next. If a question makes you thing of something else you want to mention, do so as soon as you finish your answer. If you don’t know a definite answer to a question but have a reasonable speculation, please state that you are speculating and provide it.”
Joseph nodded. “You sounded a lot like a lawyer there.”
A faint smile crossed the bald man’s face. “I am a lawyer.”
For the next half hour Peter asked questions about every place and everything that played a role in the story. Attitudes of the other people in the diner, details of the Kindred’s buildings and the port’s involvement with the gang were all probed with more questions than Joseph could have thought to ask. His memories were fresh enough that details came to mind with relative ease. He found Peter was right, he knew more than he thought. Mainly that was because he didn’t realize they were things PICTA would want to know. Finally they reached the end of the questions.
“Was there anything useful in all that?” Joseph asked.
“Lots of things,” Peter said. “It seems like a lot of little details, but little details are often critical. Time spent investigating this group will make it even more useful.”
“I hope so. I’d love to see them shut down for good. Did PICTA catch the Ventalian Maffia’s ship?” Joseph braced for the answer, almost afraid to hear it.
Peter, however, did not offer one. His head rose from the notescreen as he closed the notes he’d taken during their talk, and he rubbed his scar with one hand. “Now that I can’t tell you.” A hint of regret colored his voice.
“Why not? You don’t know?”
“I can’t even tell you whether I know. You are a Tetonite and if I remember correctly you were on a Wargames team in school. You know how operational security works.”
“Yes, of course I do.”
“Then you understand why it’s important. As an organization, PICTA takes it more seriously than any I’ve worked for, including the Teton Sector Military.”
“I thought you were a lawyer?” Joseph questioned.
“I was not always a lawyer.” Peter offered a slight smile with that explanation.
“PICTA has a relatively low opinion of other Tetonites then?”
“Not at all.” The bald man shook his head with a sigh. “You’re making the same two incorrect assumptions that most make on the subject. First that no Tetonite would ever be involved in human trafficking; there are more than enough who are. Second, you assume sensitive information has to be passed deliberately.
“Look at the sheer volume of isolated facts you just gave me. Few people, even Tetonites, would think twice about sharing similar things from their own lives. A few disconnected facts assembled by the wrong people can be enough to destroy a person, family or business. It’s the difference between ‘safe enough’ and ‘as safe as possible.’
“For most the odds of that happening are so low that secrecy isn’t worth the trouble. If a member of your family is robbed or kidnaped or experiences some other horror it’s dismissed as mischance, and for the most part that’s accurate. Bad things happen to good people, it’s part of life in a sinful world.
“We have to do things a little differently. PICTA exists to fight the worst practice of humankind. Those who practice it would love nothing more than to take revenge on us for what we’ve cost them. Once the survivors we liberate from those organizations are in our care, ‘safe enough’ isn’t satisfactory. It would not be a great risk to tell you what happened to that ship, if I know, but nobody can let slip information they don’t have.”
“True. It’s a reasonable stance to take.” Joseph would have to wonder. Whatever the outcome, there was nothing he could do about it. It would just be nice to know.
“It isn’t just a bunch of armored head-knockers and psychologists we’re protecting either, you know. There are tons of ordinary people just like you, your partner and his wife who do things for us. We have to protect them too. If you want more information, you’ll have to get more involved.”
A large part of Joseph wanted to. Short weeks before he would have asked where to sign up. Today he recognized it would put his crew in danger, and he knew what the answer had to be. “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
“May I ask why not?”
“We’re about to buy another ship.” Joseph set his face on his hands, mumbling his explanation. “An ore hauler, of which I’ll be the captain. I plan to take it to asteroid mines in frontier systems. You wouldn’t be aware of this of course, but my partner and I are concerned about the risks I take. When I get involved, I put the people around me in danger. Whether the instinct to help is right or wrong, I can’t do that to my crew.”
“Get involved a little more carefully then.” Peter slid a paper business card across the table to him. It listed the main contact points to report information to PICTA. “You don’t have to fight every battle yourself. Let us know, or local law enforcement, or whatever other group is appropriate.”
“That was what I had in mind. I’ll keep this handy. Unlikely that I’ll run into human trafficking again though.”
“Maybe. It’s more common than you think. Learn to look for it, and where you’re going I can practically guarantee it will come up again. Perhaps not soon, but it will.”