CONTENT IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. POSTED SECTIONS MAY UNDERGO EDITING. YE BE WARNED.
In A Starship's Wake
By Stephen Schamber
Chapter 55: Out Of Danger
Seated at the desk in his quarters, Joseph read through his report again. While they were still outside the reach of the Instant Communication Network, he prepared a captain’s report for the Teton Sector Border Patrol and the Islinglonde System Guard, to accompany the sensor data they would send. It was mostly finished, but every time he read through it he thought of more details to add. He wanted to get them all down now.
Great Mandan Laker sped away from Kalleta Asteroid Mine without incident. Despite their nosiness, they hadn’t aroused enough suspicion to be followed or attacked. Once they put several more empty star systems between them, Joseph let himself relax.
Of course he immediately began to brood about what to do next. There was always too much to think about now. He was getting older, but life wasn’t getting any easier.
He’d made no progress for fifteen minutes. Despite the late hour he wasn’t ready to sleep, so he decided to take a break. He rose and headed for the door out of his quarters. Maybe when he came back he’d think of another piece of information to add, or at least be ready for bed.
As he tried to scrounge a snack on the lounge deck, the large display window caught his eye. He had yet to test it out himself, he’d only enjoyed the scenery others had selected. Right now it was empty, so he wandered to the control pad and scrolled through the options.
Soon he ran across one he recognized, Hope Beach. He’d been there in person twice. It was a cove on a sheltered coastline, access made difficult by the mountains that surrounded it, and it was a popular tourist attraction.
Once he put the image up he got a surprise. He’d expected to see the view from the beach, but the shot was actually of the beach itself. It had been taken from an observation deck built on one of the mountains to one side, which he’d visited.
Joseph leaned by the window a long time and looked out at a scene a thousand lightyears away. Hope Beach was just as beautiful in this picture as he remembered it. He wasn’t sure how they’d managed to get a shot when there were no visitors swimming. There were a few campsites for backpackers set up a short walk back from the shore, beyond the reach of the tides, and they were always occupied.
“You finally found a minute to experiment with that I see.” Samuel joined him at the rail. “Nice place. Where did you find that one?” Joseph told him, and he nodded. “I keep it on views from home when I set it. I wasn’t a long-distance traveler like this before, I’ve felt a little homesick at times.”
“It’s one of the drawbacks of the long distance jobs. It took me plenty of time to get used to it, and I didn’t have a family to miss.”
“Not for now, at least. You spent a lot of time talking with that young lady at Four Machines. Are you still in touch with her?”
“We exchange letters.” Joseph tried not to flush. “It takes a while. Even when we’re inside the Instant Communication Network, she isn’t. It’s going well.”
“Have you given any thought to what you’ll do if you get married? I can’t imagine you’ll want to keep making fringe system voyages forever under those circumstances.”
“Even now I’m not sure I’ll do it forever.” Joseph tapped on the railing with his knuckles and gazed out at a wave frozen in place. “I’ve given it some thought. Probably what Justine and Tyrone do, stick to the Teton Sector. At least stay out of fringe systems.”
“That would be wise. My impression was that unaffiliated systems were just as dangerous. You’d know more about that they I would though, I never actually flew there.”
“Some certainly are. What about you? I hardly expect you’ll want to spend the rest of your life in this business. We’ve had enough experience already to know it’s risky.”
“I definitely don’t want to work in the fringe systems forever, no. A few years to build up money, then I’ll probably go back to Sector freight or try to find a job where I stay at home.” Both men were silent for a moment, admiring the view of the beach.
“You seem just as worried now that we’re clear of the mine,” Samuel observed.
“Rebecca commented that what we found at Kalleta looked fairly big, and I think she’s right.” This was the worry that nagged Joseph, despite their apparent safety. “The piracy we deal with in the Teton Sector is mainly opportunistic, and this group looks much more organized. Islinglonde or the Teton Sector Border Patrol or both will dig. Since we’re the ones that found it, I’m worried they’ll want our help to shut it down.”
“We don’t really know all that much, only that there were some ships at Kalleta.”
“That’s more than anyone else noticed,” Joseph countered. “If all they want is to talk to me, that’s fine. I just don’t want to be dragged into a more active role. PICTA tried that with me already. I expect actual law enforcement agencies will be more forceful about it.”
“I didn’t think that was very likely.” Samuel took on a worried frown. “Hopefully we can avoid that.”
“I’m also concerned by how soon we ran into that kind of danger. I expected to find unpleasant things out here, and even dangerous situations, these mines are rough places. I didn’t expect it to happen on our first fringe trip, or for it to be piracy.”
“What kind of criminal activity did you expect to find out here if not pirates?” Samuel shook his head. “It’s the most common offplanet crime, definitely the biggest worry to starmen. You can hardly sail on a starship without meeting someone who’s experienced a pirate attack. You, Rebecca and Charlie all have.”
“I did expect piracy, I just expected it to crop up in transit, not at the mines. There, I expected the crimes that go with their lawless atmosphere. Smugglers, counterfeiters, bribery and extortion, that kind of thing. Based on my talks with PICTA, slavery as well. Pirates docked at the mines to trade would be no surprise. I didn’t expect they’d operate out of one directly.”
“Yeah, that was a shock,” Samuel agreed. “Considering that, I’m glad you made it a policy not to go aboard mines in fringe systems.”
“Not any more than we have to, anyway.”
“I suppose when we do it will mainly fall to you?”
“Yes, and probably Charlie. I can understand why sometimes the mines or customers insist on it, nobody wants to be cheated. The lawlessness that makes them permissive and dangerous in some ways made them traditional and cautious in others.”
“Why didn’t Kalleta want that kind of an arrangement?” Samuel gave him a curious look.
“I think our buyer has done business with them before, so they weren’t worried about him.” Joseph was suspicious of that familiarity. The same thought must have occurred to Samuel.
“What are the chances he’s aware of the pirate problem then?”
“Unknown. It would be easy for him to know nothing of it. Unfortunately that also gives him plausible deniability. I don’t know how hard I can push to find out either. If he knows, he’ll realize in an instant that we figured it out.”
“Would that put us in danger?” Samuel’s expression made it clear he doubted it. “It seems like we should be well out of their reach already, let alone when we reach Islinglonde.”
“You’re probably right, I doubt they could plot anything successful against us. I’m more concerned it would interfere with whatever Border Patrol or Islinglonde decide to do. He could tip off the mine, and then they’ll cover their tracks or at least be on the alert.”
Samuel frowned at the large window. “That’s almost as bad. If you forced me to pick one, I’d still pick our own safety.”
Joseph nodded, troubled. “So would I. I’d feel guilty for it though. Especially if I tracked down any reports of what they’d done later on.”
Samuel gave only a grunt in reply, turning his eyes back to the beach. The natural urge was always to prioritize one’s own safety, but the costs could be haunting. “Will we return to the mine if he hires us again?” the man asked at last.
“We’ll see. Not before we hear from the investigators and know the result. I have no desire to turn away business, but I also don’t want to take unnecessary risks.”
“And if he tries to hire us out before the investigation concludes?”
Joseph considered his answer, looking at the beach trail in the distance. “We’ll see. Absent any request from Islinglonde or Border Patrol, I think I’ll have Justine tell him our schedule is full if he happens to call. If they ask for our help...”
“You’ll feel obligated to do it?” Samuel lifted one eyebrow.
“No.” Joseph gave an emphatic shake of his head. “If they ask for our help, we’ll see what the risks are. Maybe we’ll help. I’d like to if we can, but only if we can.”
“Fair enough,” Samuel agreed. “Personally I’d prefer to never go there again, regardless of the circumstances. Once was enough.”
Joseph grunted. “I’ll keep that in mind.” One possibility that occurred to him was to leave his crew behind. The Kalleta miners had not met them, and would not notice. He had, after all, pledged to put their safety first.
A crew swap really wasn’t enough to fulfil that promise. If he put Great Mandan Laker in danger, he also endangered their livelihoods. A solution that protected their physical safety didn’t entirely protect them from harm if the ship was destroyed.
It might be the only good option, unless he was willing to outright refuse an request for their involvement. Maybe that was what he should do. He didn’t want to return to Kalleta any more than Samuel did, if he was honest.
“Well, I’m on shift in a few minutes.” Samuel turned away with a wave. “Keep playing with that screen, a lot of those have twenty-four to forty-eight hours of video.”
The door to the stairwell rolled open and shut as he left, and Joseph looked again at the control pad. Sure enough, there was a “play” icon next to the Hope Beach image that he hadn’t spotted. With one tap the wave he’d studied rolled forward and crashed on the beach. Joseph shook his head at his own incompetence.
He watched a few more waves roll in and realized as he watched that the still beginning frame had been an early morning shot. A few swimmers soon ran down from the direction of the campsites into what he knew would be comfortably warm water.
Divided ideals warred within him. Pirates were a danger to all ships and Joseph had always thought of it as a responsibility to help weed them out. Yet the welfare of his crew could not take second place to that, and the two were in conflict. He couldn’t see a way forward that didn’t require him to abdicate one responsibility. Perhaps they wouldn’t ask him to get involved further and it would never come up.
That was probably too much to hope for. Neither government organization was likely to own a bulk hauler, and that was the only viable cover story for a ship going to Kalleta. The station was probably familiar with the light freighters that brought their supplies, and would be suspicious of changes to the roster. Unknown ore haulers would be expected, since many customers arranged delivery themselves. Laker’s own reception demonstrated as much.
Once a few more minutes passed Joseph left the window. He should go through that report one more time before bed. If he added nothing, at least he’d done as much as he could.
The information packet was scheduled to send as soon as they were in ICN range. That should happen sometime while he was asleep. He’d undoubtedly have to talk to them directly within days, perhaps even tomorrow. No matter how complete the report was, there were always questions.