CONTENT IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. POSTED SECTIONS MAY UNDERGO EDITING. YE BE WARNED.
In A Starship's Wake
By Stephen Schamber
Chapter 39: Different Directions
“Sorry, did I sit on your hand?” Tyrone asked. Justine shifted uncomfortably as he took his place next to her.
“No, you didn’t.” She gave him a tight smile. “I’m just nervous about the call.”
The small desk in their quarters was not the ideal place for that kind of communication. Both had to squeeze into a small enough space to be visible in the small camera lense of Tyrone’s personal computer. The bridge or the workroom would have been much better, but this was the only place they could be sure Joseph would not overhear the conversation.
Tyrone wasn’t certain they ought to hide a call to PICTA from their partner. It did seem faintly wrong. In fairness Joseph hadn’t mentioned his dealings with the group to them either. Of course that argument would be void if it turned out Joseph didn’t have any such dealings, but both he and Justine found that possibility hard to believe.
“I’m nervous about it too. I’m glad we have Peter’s direct number. He’s someone familiar to talk to, at least.”
In the few days since leaving Orson Station, the couple had talked repeatedly about work fro PICTA. They had not precisely argued, because both were of two minds, but the discussions had been heated. That led to several awkward moments when they suddenly cut off conversation because Joseph came into the room. Neither was certain about going through with the idea yet, but they had gone over every possibility two or three times now. There was simply nothing more for them to discuss without more information.
“It feels like we’re committing ourselves by calling him about it.” Justine put her face in her hands and sighed. “I know that isn’t really true. It’s just that it’s a step we can’t erase.” “It is that much,” Tyrone agreed. “Peter at least will always know we took a hard look at joining up. There’s no time limit on making this call, we can hold off if you don’t want to do it yet.”
“No, that’s no good either. We’ll just keep wrangling at each other and sooner or later it will actually turn into an argument. Better that we take some steps toward making a decision.”
“All we’re really calling to do is ask what they would have us do.” Despite discussing that question endlessly, they had nothing but speculation about how PICTA would employ a transport ship. “There will still be plenty of opportunity to back out. We don’t have to go through with it if we decide it’s the wrong choice for us.”
“Yeah, I know.” Justine straightened to sit upright again. “Alright, let’s call.”
A flicker of surprise crossed Peter’s face when he answered, but he quickly schooled it back to his usual, neutral expression. “Mr. and Mrs. Barret, hello. Is everyone alright?”
“Yes, everyone is fine,” Justine assured him. “We had some questions to ask someone from PICTA, and we wanted to talk to someone familiar.”
“Which I imagine is only me,” the man chuckled. “What can I answer for you?”
“We’ve had an extended conversation over the last few days on what you said about ordinary people involved in things for PICTA,” Tyrone explained. “We wanted to find out what tasks you’d have for a light transport ship.”
“Ah, I see. Preferably without promising that you’ll do any of them I’m sure. A perfectly reasonable stance to take, of course,” he hastened to add as Tyrone’s face darkened. “I don’t mean to deflect the question, but it truly does depend on what the owners or pilots of the ship are comfortable with doing. I’d be happy to give you a few examples. Is there anything in particular you were thinking of?”
Tyrone explained their theory from days earlier about taking small amounts of cargo off the manifest along with an actual load. It seemed a lot sillier as he told Peter the theory than it had in the park. To his surprise the scarred man nodded with approval as he spoke. “I’m sure that’s not how everything is shipped, but it seemed like a good method for some things,” Tyrone finished.
“You’re right, that is one way we move cargo,” Peter nodded. “It’s not the bulk of our shipping, but sometimes for a special device or something else of a sensitive nature we do that. Weapons and ammunition for some outposts outside the Teton Sector are also shipped that way, passed through a few Tetonite ports first to hide their origin. It’s important to note that the people taking them to the final destination are in fact smuggling, otherwise we wouldn’t need to ship them that way at all.”
“It’s not how you assemble basic supplies?” Tyrone realized from the beginning that wasn’t practical, no matter what he’d thought before. Piecemeal shipment of perfectly legal commodities in large volumes was just a lot of wasted effort. To supply an entire operation without leaving traceable records was more romantic than realistic, despite the advantages of a hidden supply line.
“Our own fleet of freighters takes care of most of that.” Peter shook his head. “We do hire outside ships to carry a lot of our shipments. If it’s one bound for certain facilities, you have to be vetted very thoroughly first. We try to send only our own ships to the places that are closely-guarded secrets, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
“Aside from those two kinds of cargo transportation, freighters sometimes also transport our personnel. Our agents have more need to move discreetly than cargo, and freighters are all but invisible in most places. Once in a while freight ships even relocate victims. Thorough vetting requirements apply to that as well.”
“Where do you send ships?” Justine asked.
“Unless we’re hiring you for a full shipload, we don’t specify destinations.” Peter rubbed his scar and looked past the camera for a moment. “I’m a little hazy on exactly how the system works, since I’m not part of the logistics group. The way I understand it, transports that volunteer to take agents or incidental cargo keep us informed of their schedules. If we happen to have either going between two of their destinations, we contact the freighter and make arrangements to add it to their load. Transporting victims is more delicate and involves more planning and disruption to a freighter’s normal schedule, but again freighters aren’t the main method for that.
“You don’t have to make any trip or take any cargo for us that you don’t want to take, even once you’re involved. Frankly even if we wanted to do it, we have no way to force volunteers to do anything. If you consistently refuse loads we’ll eventually stop asking and drop you off the list of ships to contact. I’m not sure there’s much more I can tell you, does that help?”
“Absolutely,” Tyrone nodded. “We’ll have to talk more and see if it’s something we want to do. It’s nice to have some concrete information, that’s what we lacked.”
“Good. I’ll send you contact information for someone who can help you directly if you decide you want to be involved. Especially since you’re mainly staying inside the Teton Sector now, it shouldn’t involve any undue risk for you.”
“Thank you, we’d appreciate that,” Tyrone said.
“You’re welcome. Let me know what you decide. We can always use more help, but remember too that you don’t have to get involved. There are plenty of perfectly valid reasons not to, even if you needed a reason. I’ll send you a message with the contact information in a few minutes. God’s blessings to both of you.”
“You too!” they replied in unison, and the screen went blank.
“Even Peter made a point of saying we don’t have to do it,” Justine laughed. “I guess I didn’t need to be worried about them taking it as a promise when we weren’t sure yet.”
“Nope,” Tyrone agreed. They both stood and stretched. With both of them crammed at the desk, even that short conversation was long enough to cause cramps.
“So, what do you think?” Justine asked. “Should we be a part of this?” She lowered herself onto the bed and lay back, lacing her fingers behind her head.
“I’m running out of reasons to say we shouldn’t.” He sat down cross-legged beside her.
“I think we could at least get involved in moving cargo for them. There isn’t a lot of risk inherent in that, certainly not any we don’t already take.”
“Are you thinking of the small incidental cargo or hiring out to them?”
“Both,” Justine clarified. “We can move their small packages on a volunteer basis, there’s no problem with that. Paid loads are even better because they’ll help build up our customer base a little, which we need to do since we’re changing where we operate.”
“That would be a big benefit. About the worst I can imagine happening to us while transporting their cargo is arriving at one of their facilities at the same time one of their enemies finds and attacks it.”
“If that’s going on I don’t think they’ll expect us to stick around.”
“No, and it’s not a likely scenario to begin with. PICTA has plenty of enemies, but the few that are capable of an attack on that scale aren’t likely to do it.”
Both had read a lot about the organization in the last several days as they tried to make their decision. It occupied a peculiar position in the universe. Criminal organizations naturally hated them, but they were not alone. The governments of foreign nations, especially those where human trafficking was not considered wrong, held even more animosity for the counter-trafficking association.
PICTA was not a government organization, and complaints about them from diplomats went largely unheeded by the Teton Sector government. A military attack would be unwise, since it would require a violation of Teton Sector boarders that would definitely not go unheeded. How long that golden age would continue was unclear, but nobody was foolish enough to think the group would disappear if the Tetonite government did crack down on them.
“Would you only want to do cargo, if we do anything at all, or would you want to take passengers too?” Justine shifted her head to get a better look at him as she asked.
“I don’t know. I’d be open to passengers, at least until we have children running around. Garden Variety Animal is large enough that a PICTA agent or two on board won’t be much of a disruption. What do you think?”
She twisted her mouth in a grimace and sighed. “It wouldn’t be too bad, no. I actually had the victim relocation in mind. That idea worries me more, but my thoughts always go back to Allison. She really needed you and Joseph’s help, and she wasn’t any trouble at all herself. Based on her, maybe it wouldn’t be such a burden to help relocate people, even if it takes us out of our way.”
“It was actually quite rewarding with her,” Tyrone nodded. I’m sure it would be with others too, even if it’s more difficult.”
“How is she doing, by the way? I haven’t asked for a while.”
“She seems to be settling in well. Joseph and I saw her when we were at Couradeen Station to deliver the Carvers’ next shipment. I think that was the second trip after the pirate attack. It gets hard to keep track with these short two and three day runs. Hopefully you’ll get to meet her the next time we’re there, it shouldn’t be hard to arrange.”
“That would be nice. She’s the one who set us on this path, ultimately. She didn’t mean to, but she did. I’m still not sure, but I think we should get involved at least a little bit.”
“Why don’t we spend a little more time thinking it over and talk again tonight?” Tyrone said. “We can’t really start until Joseph is off the ship, and that will still be a few days.”