In A Starship's Wake
By Stephen Schamber
Chapter 53: Speculation And Guesswork
Once the other four arrived, Joseph explained the new information he and Rebecca discovered. The atmosphere on the bridge was grim. Before they were only suspicious. Now they had reason to be afraid.
“Rules out the possibility that they’re smugglers then,” Samuel said. “I hoped that would be all it was.”
“Not entirely,” Joseph disagreed. “Smuggling is probably still involved, but there’s definitely more than that going on.”
“I don’t suppose disconnecting from the station, flying away and reneging on the job is an option?” Gordon asked.
“Definitely not a good option.” Joseph shook his head.
“It might actually be the worst option,” Charlie added.
“Why the worst?” Rebecca asked.
“Bulk haulers dock differently for cargo transfer than other freighters.” Charlie started his explanation before Joseph could even open his mouth. “Safeties keep the station-side docking clamps from releasing if there is material flowing through the transfer mechanisms. It’s intended to reduce the chance that you accidentally pump valuable goods into empty space, because that both loses you a lot of money and creates a navigation hazard right where you most need ships to fly. To disconnect without telling the station first would involve damaging the station and possibly the ship. We might have to fire on the station just to get loose.”
“To add to that, we already have their goods in our hold.” Joseph understood the desire to back out, and wasn’t sure he could even disagree, but it was too late for that. “There are ways we could still get loose from the station and leave, but if we do that they’ll be rightly angry with us for stealing from them.
“Not to mention that if we renege on the contract we don’t get paid for this trip. We could weather that, but I like getting paid and I like paying my employees. Losing money and not paying my employees are things I don’t like. Something I like even less is losing money and still paying my employees, and that’s what would happen. Unless we’re in imminent danger, we won’t force our way out.”
“It would be premature anyway. We don’t know what’s actually going on here, do we?” Charlie’s question had the tone of a statement of fact, which it was. “The miners and the pirates aren’t necessarily the same people. The miners are probably complicit, but that doesn’t make them a threat. Pirates could be allowed to work out of the mine, or could be forcing the mine to allow it. The pirates might not be here at the moment, and it’s even possible they only show up on rare occasions. Maybe the mine just disposes of captured ships for them.”
“Even that they may not be doing willingly,” Nathan added. “The pirates could blackmail them somehow.”
Charlie nodded agreement. “It could well be that the mine is a cover for a pirate operation, but let’s not get our hearts too set on that explanation. There are too many other possibilities.”
“Fair enough, we don’t know a lot,” Samuel agreed. “What do we know for sure?
Joseph put the information from the database on the screen. “Most of the hard data we have is from the missing ship bulletin. It’s useful, but there isn’t a ton in it. We can speculate about a lot of things from that, but we can’t confirm much.”
“The possibilities are myriad,” Charlie nodded. “We won’t get much closer to the truth before it’s time for us to leave.”
“I don’t have a problem with that, I’m rather eager to reach our departure time now,” Joseph said. “One thing we do know for sure is that this has been going on for a while, whatever it is. Humble Metal Tube was reported missing in May.”
“Long enough then, that’s for sure,” Charlie agreed. “I doubt she’s the first or the last they’ve taken, probably not even of these six we can see. Hard to say how many more there might be.”
“I wish we knew whether the rest were attacked a long way away from here like this one, but it’s impossible to know unless we can ID another.”
“We might get lucky, but I don’t think we’ll get a second,” Charlie said. “The odds improve if we can find the registration numbers and so on for more of them.”
“I doubt we’ll find that.” Gordon shook his head.
“Why?” Charlie frowned at the mechanic.
“We’ve all but confirmed there’s pirate involvement somewhere along the line.” Gordon shrugged. “Registration data is important evidence that can incriminate them, and they have every reason to remove as much of it as they can find. Based on what we know so far they don’t seem like amateurs. Joseph pointed out there’s no combat damage we can spot on any of the ships. It seems likely they thought of that.”
“That’s not a bad point,” Charlie admitted. “It doesn’t account for the one we did manage to find.”
“Was it actually matched on a registration number or something else?” Gordon asked. “I thought it was just an image recognition match.”
“You know, I never actually checked.” Joseph slid into the pilot’s chair, suddenly curious. He hoped Gordon would be wrong this time. If his theory held, it wouldn’t bode well for Joseph’s hope to determine if the other ships had been attacked far from the asteroid.
“Mainly image recognition, but it matched a partial registration number.” Joseph smiled triumphantly. “There was at least something left. I found some Cyrillic writing on the side of another ship as well, which I hope is a registration of some kind.”
“Well, maybe I’m off base,” Gordon admitted. “It just seemed like an easy step to take.”
“Most don’t have very much left of whatever was painted on the sides,” Joseph said. “I’d put that down to poor maintenance by ships from countries with loose enforcement. The pirates certainly took steps to shut down the transponders, so the paint wear could have been done deliberately too.”
“Registration numbers or not, they’ll have to be in one of our databases for us to ID them.” Charlie looked discouraged. “We don’t carry very many. Humble Metal Tube was in the Teton Sector Missing Ships Database because it was lost en route to a Teton Sector station, but the rest of these probably aren’t in there. Most of the space within a similar distance of here isn’t part of the Teton Sector.”
“A lot of it doesn’t belong to anyone,” Joseph added. “Frontier systems and unaffiliated settlements. It’s probably a lost cause.” Most of the useful information they would find in their footage had already been found, and they’d only identified the one ship. They would check and recheck the rest in case they’d missed something, but the chances were slim.
Nathan had spoke very little for the last several minutes. Now he stepped forward to point at a longer shot of the ship cluster that was still displayed on the windshield. “I’ve been trying to work out why all the ships are clustered around the one cup, and I think I have an answer now. It’s the smallest and looks like the oldest of their four, which made Joseph’s initial repair work explanation seem plausible. My thought is that they don’t use it to mine asteroids at all now, and instead they put captured ships there to be looted.”
“That’s a possibility.” Charlie took another look at the image as well. “The biggest advantage to it is that the cup hides the ships from view though. Why did they suddenly surrender that advantage with these six ships? Especially when they knew an ore freighter would arrive soon.”
Nathan spread his hands. “That did occur to me, but I don’t have an answer.”
“Could they have filled the cup?” Rebecca suggested
“I hope not,” Charlie said. “It would take a lot of ships that size to fill up that much space.”
“They might have captured a few larger ones,” Samuel pointed out. “Or they could have something more important to hide in there, like the pirates’ own ships.”
“It’s possible they used the cup more for the storage space than for the secrecy,” Joseph commented. “The ore storage floors associated with a cup are big, as we saw at Four Machines. Maybe they just leave the ships parked outside because most freighter crews don’t notice them, and don’t care enough to question it if they do.”
Charlie gave a hesitant nod. “We’ve got some indication that they take their targets from a fairly wide area of space. It would be a rare freighter crew that was able to identify a ship at all, so maybe secrecy isn’t their largest concern. At least when it comes to looted ships.”
“Looted ships or ships waiting to be looted?” Rebecca asked.
“Good question,” Charlie said. “Possibly both.”
“I’d lean toward looted ships,” Joseph disagreed. “Less recent disappearances are less likely to be remembered by the freighter crews.”
“Perhaps.” Charlie sighed and sank into the chair at the navigator’s station. “Fun as it is to speculate, I don’t know that we’re close to the truth with any of this. What’s more important to talk about is the risk to us.”
“Is there any?” Samuel asked. “None of the captured ships out there are bulk haulers. Would they even know what to do with one?”
“Whether they would or not, I’m not sure it matters.” Joseph pointed to a spot on the windshield where the hold status was displayed. “Our best defense from attack is that they need the mine to operate normally. Disruption of that operation will bring outside attention that they won’t want. That holds no matter what the exact situation on the station is.”
“What if they realize we’ve figured out their secret?” Rebecca looked nervously at the asteroid. “They’d almost have to attack us then, wouldn’t they? Otherwise we’d do exactly what we’re going to do.”
“Maybe, but the only indication we gave that we know anything was to ask about the ships,” Nathan objected. “We happened to be curious about their parked ships, and we didn’t press very hard about it. We don’t even have any conclusive evidence to present to the Border Patrol or Islinglonde, frankly. All we know is there’s a ship that was lost to pirates parked here, we’ve got nothing about the time in between. From their perspective we don’t even know that much.”
“It’s not a lot to motivate an attack on us,” Charlie agreed. “We’re just an unusually curious crew.”
“I’ll acknowledge that they don’t have a lot of reason to suspect us, but I’m not convinced,” Gordon said. “To assume we aren’t in danger places an awful lot of faith on the risk aversion of a group of people who steal spaceships for a living.”
Charlie considered that for a moment. “You’re not wrong,” he concluded.
“And if we are attacked after all?” Rebecca asked.
Joseph gave a fatalistic shrug. “I mounted a lot of guns on this ship. I didn’t expect to use them this soon, but it’ll happen one of these days. They’ll get more resistance than they expected.”
Samuel gazed out at the asteroid uncomfortably. “I wish there were something we could do to stop them ourselves, or at least learn more.”
“So do I.” Charlie spread his hands. “This is how it is.”
“We are going to do something.” Joseph felt his face harden as he looked up. “As soon as we’re back in range of the ICN we’re going to report what we found to the Teton Sector Border Patrol and the Islinglonders. Heck, anyone else who will listen as well. They have resources we don’t, and if anyone is going to investigate this further it will be them.”
“What if the Islinglonders launch a punitive expedition and the miners are actually innocent?” Nathan asked.
Uncomfortable silence was the only answer he received. Allies though they were, Islinglonde was not the most liberty-loving nation in space. The lives of their citizens were closely monitored and freedoms Tetonites took for granted were unknown there. It would not be unlike them to overreact to this information in exactly the way Nathan suggested, and it would weigh heavily on him if the miners were innocent of any actual wrongdoing.
Joseph pressed one hand on his temple and closed his eyes. “If the miners are innocent and that happens, it will give me plenty of sleepless nights. Unfortunately I can’t think of a way we can determine their guilt or innocence. The Teton Sector Border Patrol and Islinglonde are the ones who can find out, and I can’t believe they’ll take a step that drastic without some effort in that direction.”
“I have to point out too,” Gordon said, “even if they make the wrong call, nothing we can do will turn out better for the miners than whatever Islinglonde does.”
“Except if we never report it, of course.” Charlie shook his head as he made the comment. “We all know we aren’t going to do that. It wouldn’t be fair to the crews of those ships, or more likely their families.”
“We’ll report to the Teton Sector Border Patrol first,” Joseph said. “That will encourage the Islinglonders to do as thorough a job as possible. Beyond that there’s nothing for us to do.”