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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 56: Questions Delegated

    Before heading to the shower, Joseph checked his computer. He’d opted to go to sleep before they came in range of the Instant Communication Network. Several messages had arrived while he slept.
    The most important was from Justine. It contained a brief update on her and Tyrone and the rest of Great Mandan Laker’s schedule before their fist two weeks off. Joseph already had the next two loads, but the rest had been unknown until now. He was glad Justine took care of that. If he had to try and solicit business himself while spending four days at a time unable to communicate he’d tear his hair out.
    He lingered at his desk long enough to scan through the news and the schedule, then headed for his little washroom. Garden Variety Animal’s trips were going well. They were sticking to Teton Sector space now, but still found comparatively lucrative runs. He and Tyrone built a reputation for the ship and there were plenty of less secure parts of the Teton Sector. A ship seen as a hard target would be in demand.
    The schedule pleased him as well. Kalleta had not managed to wind up on the roster before he could tell Justine to blacklist it. Even better, Four Machines had made the list. Not only a safe stop, but a chance to visit new friends.
    Savannah’s last message had reached him just before they went beyond the ICN. He’d prepared a reply before they reached Kalleta, and he ought to update it before he sent it. He’d been too preoccupied to do that while they were off the grid.
    Their trip to Four Machines would be the last freight run before their vacation. It was a short trip from the refinery to Frontier Terminal, where they would dock. None of the crew lived on the station, but everyone but Rebecca and Joseph were within a few systems. They’d only have a few hours’ flight on a passenger shuttle to reach home. Rebecca wouldn’t be much further, and Joseph would stay with the ship.
    Joseph dressed and was about to head down to the commons deck to make coffee when he got a call. One look was enough to make him groan. Teton Sector Border Patrol already wanted to speak with him, and it would undoubtedly take a while.
    By the time they were finished he could feel the start of a caffeine withdraw headache. Finally on the commons deck, he dropped a notescreen on the dining table and headed for the coffee pot. Mercifully someone had already been up to start it. He poured a cup and grimaced appreciatively as the first sip passed his lips, hours after it should have.
    “Took you long enough to get down here,” Rebecca commented. She was seated cross-legged on a couch across the room reading with her own cup. “Did you sleep in?”
    “No.” Joseph knew the sullen tone betrayed his irritation, but he didn’t care. “My morning routine was interrupted by Border Patrol. I need to keep another coffee pot in my quarters.”
    “For the one day a year that you’re interrupted by an important two-hour-long call before you can come down for coffee? That makes sense.”
    “I’m not in the mood for sense,” Joseph grumbled.
    “No, you’re in the mood to hastily implement an impractical solution to a non-problem. Good thing we’ve got a few more days in transit.”
    Charlie laughed from the doorway. “That’s a good way to put it.” His response didn’t help Joseph’s irritation, but Charlie changed the subject. “What did they want to talk to you about that it took two hours?”
    “Our report. Police investigators always manage to think of a few more details they want.”
    “You’re the same way you know.” Charlie was absolutely correct.
    Joseph shook his head and let go of his irritation. “Of course I am, I didn’t say they were wrong, I’m just complaining about their timing.”
    “Make yourself some breakfast. That should fix it.” Rebecca hadn’t looked up from her notescreen once. His crew was apparently used to his grouchy moods now.
    He set about that. Great Mandan Laker was three days out from Kalleta now, and into Islinglonde space. It was relatively safe here.
    “Did you learn anything from Border Patrol or were they asking all the questions?” Charlie asked.
    “They did most of the asking.” Joseph shoved some pre-cooked sausages into a warmer. “I don’t know if they could have learned anything we would be interested to know yet anyway. They’ve only had our report for a few hours, I’m surprised they’ve managed to read it already.”
    “Otherwise you would have gotten up earlier.”
    “Yeah, exactly.”
    “If they had found anything, would they tell us?” Rebecca had finally looked away from her reading. “If it were up to me I probably wouldn’t, for the sake of security. The fewer people who know about any of this, the lower the chance it will get back to Kalleta and scare them off.”
    “Tough to say. I wouldn’t be surprised if they kept us in the dark. I’m sure we’ll hear from them again, more questions are bound to come up. As long as they don’t ask us to go back there, I’m happy to give them whatever they ask. Islinglonde still haven’t contacted us, so there’s a whole other set we’ll have to answer as well.”
    “Well, probably just you,” Charlie corrected. “You’re the captain, nobody seems to care to talk with the rest of us.”
    “I wouldn’t complain about that if I were you.” Joseph gave him a dark look and retrieved the sausages. “Still, you’re right. You’ll get your chance if we ever report to PICTA. They’ll want to talk with everyone.”
    “Let’s just hope that never comes up, shall we?” Rebecca lifted an eyebrow. “Human trafficking isn’t a business I want to see any side of. I suppose that’s why you want me on the ship at non-Sector mines?”
    Joseph nodded vigorously as he swallowed his first bite. “Maybe I’m being more paranoid than is justified, but I’d rather take the precaution. There’s only six of us, I’d rather never have to fight a whole station crew. If we do, I want to do it on our home turf.”
    “Or take the option to shoot up their docks and leave?”
    “Well, I’d prefer to avoid that too since it still doesn’t guarantee we’d get away. We’ve had success with similar strategies in the past. If it’s called for, I’ll do it again.”
    Several hours later and with Joseph in much better spirits, his phone beeped at him. He was on his way fore from the engineering section, where he’d busied himself with a few maintenance tasks.
    Gregory was on the other end. “Joseph, call waiting for you. Islinglonde System Guard. They want to speak with you about our little adventure at Kalleta.”
    “Do they want to thank us personally for locating Humble Metal Tube, I hope?”
    “That was not the impression I got. Whatever they have to tell us, it sounds like the investigator expects us to protest. Can’t say for sure, he didn’t tell me the exact subject.”
    “Alright. Put him through to my phone, I’m on the way fore again.”
    Gregory did that, and the Islinglonder’s face appeared on the screen. He exchanged a few brief pleasantries with Joseph and introduced himself as Rodger Giffard, an Examiner for the Islinglonde System Guard. 
    “‘Examiner’ is similar to ‘Agent’ in Tetonite usage, correct?” Islinglonde and the Teton Sector both used the English language, but the former came from the ancient British rather than American tradition. Their accent was surely not the same as it had once been, but still varied from the Teton Sector, as did many titles.
    “More or less, yes. You’re on your way to your delivery in the Orchester System now, correct?” Examiner Giffard asked.
    “That’s right, we’ll be a few more days in transit.”
    “Have you contacted your customer yet? Mr. Reese?”
    “No, other than to alert him that we’re still on schedule.” Joseph lifted one eyebrow. “I don’t believe I mentioned him in my report, either. Why?”
    “You didn’t mention him, I tracked that down. Were you planning to tell him about what you found at Kalleta?” Giffard’s expression was serious.
    Joseph evaluated how much to tell the Islinglonder as he opened the door to his quarters. “I haven’t decided yet. I certainly don’t plan on a return to that mine anytime soon one way or another. I won’t tell him the whole story, if any of it. For all I know he could be in on it.” Joseph sat at his desk, already sure what Giffard would ask him next.
    “We’re wondering about that as well,” the Islinglonder admitted. “Which is why I was to instruct you not to share the story with him. Or anyone else in Islinglonde, for that matter. Until we have a better idea of what’s going on, we don’t want anyone in our nation to know about this. We’re concerned that word of the investigation will get back to the mine before we have time to wrap up the whole bunch of them. I don’t know if Border Patrol will share that opinion yet.”
    Joseph did not respond immediately. He narrowed his eyes and gripped his chair arms. He wanted to know whether Mr. Reese was aware of the piracy. However, it was an open question whether he could get any clues out of the refinery owner even if he explained the whole thing. If the man was in league with pirates he would know to guard his words. 
    Joseph worried that he might decide the man was innocent when he was in fact guilty, and in the process alert the refinery owner to what his crew discovered. Another trip to Kalleta could easily become a pitched battle under those circumstances, and one they’d be hard put to survive. Perhaps instead he could get the System Guard to investigate that question for him.
    “I might tell him, if it would let me read his reaction. I want to know what he knows about the piracy at Kalleta. My main concern is the safety of my crew. If he deliberately sent us to a pirate base, I can’t trust work from him.”
    “And presumably won’t contract with him again, assuming he manages to stay out of prison.” Giffard furrowed his brow. “I can certainly understand your position.”
    “I take it from the prison comment that you plan to look into him and his business during your investigation?”
    “I’ve only just finished your report, so there isn’t a firm plan of investigation yet, but I’d certainly expect so. He’s a point of contact for them if nothing else.”
    “Something for something then. I won’t tell anyone in Islinglonde about what we saw at Kalleta. I’ll see to it that my crew don’t either. In exchange, you tell me what you find out about him. Details if possible, but I’ll settle for a yes or no. I don’t want to compromise your investigation, anyone who works the freight lanes wants pirates shut down.”
    “I can promise you that much,” Giffard agreed. “I can’t give you a timetable, sadly.”
    “Not a problem.” Joseph twitched his head in dismissal of that inconvenience. “Investigative work doesn’t lend itself to scheduling.”
    “I do have more questions for you, if you have time.”
    “We’re in transit, I don’t have anything pressing to accomplish. What do you need to ask?”
    Examiner Giffard had quite a few questions. The discussion went on as long as the one with Border Patrol earlier in the day. To Joseph’s surprise, few of the questions were the same. 
    “I think I have enough to be getting on with then.” The Examiner shifted something on his desk, out of the camera shot.
    Joseph nodded. “Alright. Let me know when you have anything for me. We won’t share our story from Kalleta with anyone who doesn’t already know.”
    “You’ve told others before now?” Examiner Giffard gave him a worried frown.
    “My business partners in the Teton Sector who take care of the sales end of our operation and the Teton Sector Border Patrol. I’ll pass word to my partners that Islinglonde would like us to keep things under wraps for now. Border Patrol doesn’t need the reminder, I’m sure.”
    The Islinglonder nodded, less concerned now that he knew the other recipients. “Undoubtedly they don’t, they’re far better at investigative security than we are.”
    “You’ve worked with them before?”
    “Several times, yes. In one case the most successful investigation I’ve ever been involved with. They’re very good.”
    “I’ve noticed that myself from time to time,” Joseph agreed.
    “I’ll get to work on this and contact you when there’s an update,” Giffard promised.
    Once the call was over Joseph headed for the bridge. It was nice to have Islinglonde’s investigative resources directed at his own questions. Whether he could determine what Mr. Reese knew without telegraphing what they knew had worried him. They’d already planned to stonewall further runs until they had more details about Kalleta’s problems, so nothing was really lost in terms of time.
    “Another endless list of questions?” Gregory asked as Joseph entered.
    “In large part, yes. A lot of them were about the station layout. Islinglonde must mean to put a spy onboard, if they can. They managed to get a promise out of me not to discuss the incident while we’re in Islinglonde, or really with anyone who isn’t already aware.”
    Gregory grunted in disapproval. “I hope you got a good price for that.”
    “They’ll investigate whether Mr. Reese has any connection to the mine or the pirates. More importantly, they’ll share the results with us.”
    The mechanic didn’t respond immediately. Joseph could see his frown as he tried to decide if he would have made the same deal. “Not bad, I suppose. You didn’t plan to tell him the story anyway if I recall.”
    “Nope. I might have, but I don’t really think I’m good enough at reading people to get the information we’d need out of it. All I’d get us is trouble. Let the System Guard do that work, it’s much less of a risk for them.”
    “Force of law helps get information,” Gregory said. “Still, watch him carefully.”
    “Rest assured I will second-guess, creatively interpret and over-analyze every word out of his mouth for clues. I want all the information I can get now.”
    “Good. You might want to tone the paranoia down a bit, but otherwise, good.”
    “Glad you approve.”

Published: June 2 2019

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