In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 52: Humble Metal Tube

    Despite the excellent resolution, Joseph was frustrated by the image on the screen in front of him. A ship with faded blue paint was the subject of the picture, specifically the area just behind the cockpit. Gray letters there, partly peeled away, were probably the ship’s name or some kind of registration mark. The only problem was that it was written in a Cyrillic alphabet, which he couldn’t read at all. The best telescopes in the world couldn’t help him understand a language he didn’t know.
    Odd design made the task more difficult still. Instead of a single cohesive shape, the foreign ship was made from several large modules tied together with girders and access corridors. Designs of that style were perfectly functional, but to Joseph they seemed more appropriate for a station. No nation familiar to him designed ships that way, and he wondered where the thing could have come from.
    Because of their path of approach to the asteroid mine, the letters behind the cockpit were blocked from view by one of the larger modules for most of their approach. Only a few images showed them at all, and most of the time at angle that made them difficult to read. Still, he copied them down with as much care as he could. He didn’t need to read them for the computer to run them.
    A chime sounded from another computer, and he glanced toward Rebecca. She met his eye and shook her head. Both turned their eyes to the windshield, which displayed an alert. Joseph’s gut clenched; the ship’s computer had found a match with something.
    “Well that didn’t take long did it?” Joseph observed. They hadn’t even finished the coffee he’d brought back.
    “Good news or bad?” she wondered aloud as they both stood.
    Joseph caught the word “piracy” somewhere in the columns of data as his eyes roamed over them. “I don’t think it’s good.”
    The ship displayed was the one Charlie pointed out as an Islinglonde design and the record it matched was from the Teton Sector Border Patrol’s Missing Ships Database. Hardly a surprise. There were only a few ship databases of which they kept updated copies, and that was the largest by a wide margin.
    Most of the data wasn’t immediately useful to Joseph, and his misgivings deepened as he read. The ship’s name was Humble Metal Tube, reflective of both her general shape and the owner’s lack of interest in coming up with a better name. Charlie’s opinion of the ship’s origin was confirmed. The registration was in Islinglonde, but its home port was not one Joseph knew. In fact, none of the ports or locations listed in the information were familiar. The word “piracy” that he’d spotted appeared as the suspected cause of loss.
    “Do you recognize any of the ports?” Rebecca asked as she read through the list.
    “No. Do you?”
    “No, I’ll look them up. You warned me that it would be dangerous out here, and I did listen, but I honestly thought it would be more than a month before we had a run-in with pirates.”
    “I did too, but in this case I don’t think we’ll have to fight any.”
    Rebecca gave him a sharp look. “What makes you so sure?”
    “Almost any way pirates could use this station makes it advantageous for them to leave us alone. Charlie and I talked about it for a few minutes before he left. This isn’t some hidden pirate station, the mine has connections to the normal business world. For it to stay useful to them it has to operate normally, which means deliveries need to flow as scheduled. Knocking off an ore hauler will bring attention they can’t afford.”
    “As long as it’s a long-term arrangement.”
    “Fair point.” Joseph’s own experiences and the stories of others had taught him there were no “typical” pirates. They were inventive. “I don’t see any way we can find out exactly what the arrangement is, but I think it’s long-term enough that we can fly away without trouble once we’ve loaded.”
    Pirate inventiveness pushed an observation to the front of his mind. He brought up images of the other ships in the cluster, random stills with no particular pattern. Database information on the Humble Metal Tube included an image of the ship at port, which  Laker’s computer had displayed next to a shot of their own when it put the data up.
    Both images showed the ship in the same condition. Their shot showed no sign of even minor damage that wasn’t present on the other, let alone damage done by a space battle or forced entry. No comparisons were available, but as far as their footage could show the other ships were in the same condition.
    “Whatever type of pirates we may have here, they aren’t the smash-and-grab types that attacked Bolinscar Red Comet.” Joseph pointed out the lack of damage. “I’m not sure if that’s better or not.”
    “It sounds better. I don’t know all the other options though,” Rebecca admitted. “Hesworth Station is just a regional shipping platform, I don’t think that will give us any useful information. It’s close to the Islinglonde-Teton Sector border, but since it’s their port of registration and not where they sailed from I don’t think that matters much.”
    “Not for our purposes.” The bridge was quiet for a few moments as Joseph accessed star maps and Rebecca continued her investigation of the ports.
    “Their last port was an agricultural planet called Donsby,” Rebecca said. “Would pirates really capture a ship to steal food?”
    “I wouldn’t put it past many of them, but that might not have been what they were after. Agricultural goods can be a lot of things.” Joseph encountered enough agriculture to know that much. The Carvers grew a wide variety of crops in their domes, and not all of them were for food. “Last time Tyrone and I hauled agricultural goods with Garden Variety Animal it was rubber tree saplings. There isn’t a manifest or a general cargo type listed in the database, does the encyclopedia mention any cash crops?”
    “Let me check. The planet looks like a backwater.”
    “Well I’ve certainly never heard of it before, but there are a lot of places in Islinglonde that I’ve never heard of. All I can say for sure is that it’s not one of the major planets.”
    “It lists tobacco, cotton and a few others. Maybe they were after one of those that was on board.”
    “Or they just took the ship with no idea what was on it.” Joseph frowned; that explanation didn’t add up. “On second thought, I don’t buy my theory. It doesn’t fit with the fact that all the ships are undamaged.”
    Rebecca opened her mouth to ask why, then closed it and frowned. Joseph smiled and waited for her to think it through. “Pirates that are able to take a ship without a fight probably know what’s on the ship?”
    “Or they’re more likely to, at any rate,” Joseph amended with a pleased smile. “Pirates that routinely take ships without a fight take more time to set up the theft. They somehow neutralize the crew and often the ship beforehand, which takes a lot of effort. They’ll check that the cargo is worth their time first. It’s always possible for a crew like the corvette we fought to have a ship surrender without a fight, but six times is improbable.”
    “Would it be more likely with non-Tetonite ships?” Rebecca turned back to her computer. “Our freighters do go heavier than most on the combat equipment.”
    “More likely, but not that much more.” Joseph’s eyes returned to his computer, which had long since finished the coordinate lookups he’d ordered. “Here’s another interesting fact. Their approximate position of disappearance isn’t anywhere nearby. We aren’t close to their flight path at all, they shouldn’t have passed within a couple hundred light years of here.”
    Rebecca’s brow furrowed. “That would fit with the mine acting as a covert pirate base. Pirates take the ship without damage and they’re able to fly it here to unload the cargo.”
    “Then smuggle it in a different ship to wherever they sell it.” Joseph nodded and pondered that for a moment. “That’s the most likely scenario, although it isn’t the only one that fits.”
    “Any chance you’ve heard of Arundel Station in the New Rutland system? That was their Teton Sector destination.”
    “I’ve never encountered either before, even in name.” Joseph shook his head and sighed. It would have been helpful if the ports were large enough to be well-known, if not ones he was familiar with. That was too much to ask, the universe was too big. “Are there any clues we can glean from them or is it a standard port in a standard system?”
    “The second option.” Rebecca shook her head. “Nothing unusual about either of them.”
    “That’s not a surprise, but I’d hoped.”
    Joseph unlocked his chair, let it slide back as far as it could go and considered all the new information. There were still a lot of unanswered questions, perhaps what they’d learned could resolve a few more. The origins of the remaining ships, their ultimate fate and why they’d wound up here were all unknowns.
    Another fact that interested Joseph was that the Islinglondan freighter’s disappearance was not recent. She failed to make port several days before he and Tyrone landed on Temorran. It wouldn’t have taken nearly that long to get her from the point of capture to the station, so unless she’d gone somewhere else first she’d spent a lot of time parked outside the asteroid mine.
    Humble Metal Tube’s crew was listed missing with the ship. Had they been recovered some of the data would be more precise. Their fate was also among the open questions. Some pirates simply killed the crew of a captured ship. Given the time since she was taken, that was the likely answer.
    “I wish we’d found a match for a second ship.” Joseph abandoned his consideration and slid his chair forward again. Those questions had only speculation for answers right now.
    “Why a second? Not that it wouldn’t be nice, but why not just wish we could identify them all?”
    “Well you’re right, I wish we could identify them all,” Joseph admitted. “I’d settle for just one more because that would tell us whether some of the circumstances around this one are just happenstance or a pattern that holds for all the ships.”
    “Oh, I understand. Whether they all vanished a long way from the mine, for example.”
    “Exactly, and especially that question. That this ship was lost a long way from here suggests that they don’t attack near the mine. If that trend holds for all of them, it would reassure me that we’re relatively safe.”
    “Pirates would want to avoid ship disappearances too close to where they hide out.” Rebecca tapped the arm of her chair absently, mind on the situation. “At least they would if they were wise, but if they were wise maybe they wouldn’t be pirates in the first place.”
    “For some I’m sure that’s the case, and I wish they were all like that. Some pirates are wise enough to do other things, but they’re still pirates. The more dangerous and successful ones are usually that type.”
    “Yeah, I suppose. Hopefully that works in our favor here. Are you going to call the others up to tell them?”
    “We probably should.” For the second time in a few hours Joseph entered a ship-wide alert with orders for the whole crew to report to the bridge. There were no klaxons or flashing lights, it wasn’t an emergency, it only sent the message to everyone’s personal devices. It was time for the shift change anyway, and he and Rebecca should fill in the rest before they left.
    While they waited, Joseph brought up the ship’s security systems. Combat free capture of the Humble Metal Tube and the other ships made him think boarders had hidden on the target ships. One of Great Mandan Laker’s simplest security measures was grates installed on the cargo intakes to prevent stowaways in the cargo hold. That vector of attack was likely safe, but many other ways to access the ship from the outside existed.
    Laker’s hull was covered by a web of motion sensors and cameras. The cameras covered every airlock and allowed the crew to see most of the hull. The motion sensors were actually even more robust. Security was their secondary purpose, the first was to detect and track objects near the hull to help the deflector system prevent impacts that might damage the ship.
    A quick check of the system logs showed that no object large enough to be a person drifted near the hull since they reached the station. Plenty of loose debris surrounded this mine, and there was a long list of smaller objects already, but few posed enough of a threat to trigger the deflectors. Joseph took note of the typical sizes of the debris and reprogrammed the motion sensors to trigger an alert on the bridge if a human-sized object came within ten feet of the hull. Joseph was confident the existing airlock security could prevent unfriendly access, but this way they’d have some warning if anyone tried.

Published: March 10 2019

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© 2019 by Stephen Schamber