Stellar Buccaneers (pt. 2) (2008)

They didn’t take much care moving the small crate, seeing as it hadn’t blown up during transport to the hold.

The delay only bought Warn a few seconds of respite before the pressure was restored.

That seemed to be enough, though, he decided after rolling his wrists and fingers to be sure they were loose.  He rolled his neck and shoulders to be sure before settling into a comfortable position.  During the whole delaying process, he kept studying the lock and possible transmitter.

Once he was ready, the wererat’s outstretched hand was filled by one of Veng’s scanners and a probe.  The former was set gently on the crate’s lid, display facing Warn.  He found an insertion point and watched the scanner’s measurement of power and radiation from the lock.  His eyes never left the display as he slid the flat metal probe into the lock’s casing.  He stopped with half the device sticking out as images flashed on the scanner.

“I’m past the shielding.  Internal images are starting to come up,” he informed the others, notably Veng.  “Looks like it is a transmitter . . . following the leads . . . hmm, good quality, with backup power supply and redundant wiring . . . expensive . . . even if this has Veleran caviar, this thing would dwarf the value of the contents . . .”

He heard a low whistle from behind and ignored it.  Even so, the back of his mind was running possibilities.  Oddly, that and the talking helped him concentrate.

“Oh, interesting and tricky,” Warn muttered, then, louder, “The transmitter’s wired to the lock . . . and the lid . . . if the lock’s opened without the right key or the lid’s forced, I’m guessing the transmitter’ll go off . . . so the owner must be sure agents’ll be in range when it is opened . . . and there’s another lead I can’t trace . . . don’t try opening any of the others, the lead seems to be coming from the lock.”  Concern about explosives came flooding back.  Close on its heels was the continued suspicion that these crates held more than food, even delicacies.  The security was too elaborate and expensive, no one could make a profit off foodstuffs, or most medicines, with this sort of expense.

“Veng?  Any power readings from the probe?”

“Nothing.  Either there isn’t any, it’s too low to register, or the probe’s gone screwy.”

“Technical term?  Never mind,” Warn commented under his breath.  No definite way to determine what the lead was attached to or what it would do.  Explosive, combustive, or sealant would make the most sense.  Destroy the thief, destroy the contents, or render the box unopenable.  Did the lock pulse a charge to set it off, or did it go if the current was interrupted?  Damn good question.

He ran his hands over the case and checked the weight in the scanner.  The latter came when they’d moved the crate.  Its size to weight ratio didn’t seem to indicate great density, that helped unless a gaseous explosive . . . Warn paused to check with Robbyn before dismissing that idea.

Thirty-some minutes later, the wererat looked up from his work.

“Ready to go for the lock itself,” he reported.  “I think I’ve managed to disengage or bypass all the problem leads I see.  Veng?  Great.  Everyone may want to take cover just in case.”  As he spoke, Warn laid out the set of tools the Goblin handed over on the floor.  They were his own set, so he wouldn’t have to look to find what he wanted.  He could ignore all the tools toward his back since they were made for the, now rare, mechanical locks.  Owner had gone electronic, code key access with a thumbprint scanner, twice the security of the other crates right there.  Based on his study, he guessed there would be a second key sequence too, not numeric though.  No problems.

The pads were easy, he could automate that.  The real trick was the thumb scanner.  Darn things couldn’t be fooled, especially without knowing who was authorized to spring the lock.

There were, at least, some tricks to bypass the scanner that he’d learned in the seedier parts of some seriously seedy ports, though.  The necessary gear was in his standard kit, even though most of it carried multiple life sentences in the five nations merely for possessing the gear.  Warn gave a scoffing chuckle.  Like that would worry most owners, the ones who weren’t already wanted never thought they’d be caught anyway.  Deterrent based punishments rarely worked, he thought as he selected the necessary devices.

After considerable fiddling with several devices, Warn managed to bypass the scanner without triggering any counter-tampering problems.  The jumble of jerry-rigged solution spoke to the difficulty, but he hoped the same rig would work on the others.  If it didn’t short itself out first, he thought, eyeing the nest of physical and other connections.  The wireless ones were only visible in his mind’s eye, of course.

Finally, he leaned back.

“Veng, all clear,” the wererat announced.  I hope, he added silently.

The Goblin took his place and attached a comparatively simple, and tiny, dedicated computer to the lock.  It was smaller, faster, and a lot pricier than Warn’s, a point not lost on the ship-scout.  Better to use the best gear though.  The comp was designed solely to run code combos as rapidly as possible.  The latest model, which Veng’s was not, could supposedly run the thousand digit codes used by high end bank vaults in fractions of a second . . . and only existed in prototype form at the moment.  Another decade and a poor pirate might afford one, after they were long obsolete.

He turned his attention from the tech to Robbyn and flashed a, he hoped, reassuring smile.  She returned the positive sign and moved to another crate.

As it was, the Goblin’s device managed to crack the code in a couple minutes, at which point Warn helped remove the lid.

Both pirates backed off as a cloud of condensed vapor billowed out of the crate.  Veng looked at Lernen quickly, the latter glanced at a scanner and shook her head.  So, there was nothing but water in the rapidly dissipating cloud.

Warn was the first to venture back to the crate and look in.

After a moment, he let out a low whistle.

“Well, now we know why the security’s tight . . . this ain’t delicacies, unless that’s really changed,” he explained.  “Looks like biosamples, least they’ve got the universal biohazard sign.”

The cargomaster came up while Veng moved on to another crate.

Lernen echoed Warn’s whistle a few seconds later.  She pointed to the contents, “See that?  It’s Zeitkar’s logo.  They, so people say, do biotech work for the Commonwealth and Republic, a handful of public projects and a bunch of classified stuff.”

Warn nodded absently.  He trusted the other human to know company signs, the lady saw enough of them.

“What kind of classified?”

“Who knows for sure,” the cargomaster shrugged, “but the scuttle is they’re into frecking bioweapons and genetic engineering, maybe even stuff that’s illegal internationally.  Word is they’re one of the top five biocorps outside the Alliance, maybe even stealing Alliance tech.”

“That would explain the siffle response,” Robbyn said, joining them.  “If this Zeitkar really is doing covert biotech work for them, they’d want it covered up.  Probably no escort to keep it hidden and not draw attention.”

Warn nodded, “So . . . who’s going to tell the Captain?”

“It’s Lernen’s turf,” Veng pointed out, as if that was the end of debate.

The cargomaster’s eyes widened.  “The Captain’s not happy with my boys right now, he seems to think we could have unloaded their hold faster,” she mused.  “Besides Veng and Warn open’d the cargo.”

After the silence stretched to the point where comfort fled, Robbyn rolled her eyes.

“Fine,” she rose, “I’ll talk to him.  At least I’m not on his bad side right now.  I’ll play shield, try to calm him down on this one.”

“Well, you’ve always known him better than we have, love,” Warn pointed out, “I’m sure you’d be better than any of us.”  He understood the problem, though.  Biologicals, especially bioweapons or gene samples, were a high ticket item, good profits and a great haul for the ship.  On the other hand, they’d also be high on Zeitkar’s recovery list, which meant elite corporate retrieval teams.  Usually they only operated in squads, but even a corp squad had enough firepower to take over a battleship and their training often made the siffle’s special forces look like a kids’ camping group.  Then there was the moral side.  Despite public rumors and conceptions, most pirates in Warn’s experience held a code of honor.  Dealing in bioweapons, genocide, or mass destruction wasn’t a good thing in those codes, at least for most ships.

But the rest of the haul would, he guessed, only just cover refueling and restocking.  Break even hits weren’t popular with the crew.

The list of possible buyers was rather short too.  Some arms dealers, an alright bunch really, though some were crazy.  Various psychotic rebel groups would be an option, along with rival companies, but both tended to have either fanatics or their own heavy artillery and were dangerous to deal with.  And there was always the possibility of a sting operation.  Whatever.  Anyone they unloaded the crates to would know that Zeitkar and the CFL special units, maybe even top Commonwealth agents, would be after the stuff.  Hot goods were fine, of course, but there was such as thing as too hot.  That would drive down the profits considerably.

Warn glanced at Veng as Robbyn left the hold.

The Goblin nodded toward their cargo, indicating three that he’d unlocked.

With Robbyn off to report, the wererat was the closest they had to a trap and explosives person.  Somehow, the idea of bringing more of the crew on the project didn’t occur to anyone.

Nearly an hour passed before the last of the potentially transmitting containers was safely open.

Warn sat aside with Veng while the pair of cargo jockeys inventoried the contents. There were still twenty-some shielded crates to go, and Robbyn had only gotten to check half of those for explosives, as best she could in the circumstances. Assuming they didn’t end up as splatters of biomass on the bulkheads, there were roughly thirty containers of the stuff. Even accounting for variable sizes, he assumed the smaller ones were rare and more valuable, and based on going black market rates at their last port . . .

“You have an average size of the crates?” he looked at Veng, who nodded. “Multiply that by . . . 132,500 then by . . . twenty-eight.”

The techie did the simple math, showed him, and both let out low whistles.

They knew exactly what their share out of every hundred thousand credits the ship earned was, divided amongst the crew. Warn further knew that the number he’d chosen had been a conservatively low amount for patented genetic codes, modified for the corporate heat. Military biosamples could conceivably increase the amount thirty-fold, if they were lucky. With the right buyer, it could be a retirement level haul.

His thoughts were interrupted by the surprisingly quiet return of his wife, with their captain in tow.

The pirates rose as one, both seeking signs of the captain’s emotional state on first his blank face then Robbyn’s. She was keeping a stiff mask, one even Warn couldn’t read. He was familiar with it, though, often calling it the ‘avoiding a superior’s blame’ face. Carefully neutral and controlled, even when the Captain was behind her. Probably so they wouldn’t accidentally reveal anything . . .

“Who knows?” the Captain started, straight to business as usual.

“Just the five of us,” Warn said for the group, “We didn’t think it would be good for the whole crew to know, Captain.”

The man seemed to lose tension without any physical change.

“Thank the gods for that at least,” he muttered. Then louder, “It doesn’t leave the hold or this group until I say so. Anyone breathes a word beyond us six and he’s out the nearest airlock with a hole in his head. Understood? Good. What’re we looking at here in goods and value . . . and threat?”

Veng showed him the numbers, adding, “A conservative estimate, Cap’n.”

“We are not completely certain of what exactly is in the inventory,” Lernen put in as the captain grunted. “The crates lack a packing slip or manifest, for obvious reasons. Presumably, the bar codes on each item can be read at the destination and compared to a list transmitted some other way.”

Warn nodded to himself. Made sense, from what he’d heard of black market transfers . . . he’d had a lot of lessons, mostly unwilling, from the cargomaster since taking a berth on the ship. In theory, they helped with the scouting part of his unique job. The true manifest could be carried by a trusted courier either on the transport or another ship, probably a faster one. He had no issues seeing the interstellar companies adapting similar techniques for their grey ops.

“The last ones were only just opened, sir,” the cargomaster continued, “before you got in, so we haven’t had a chance to look closely.”

The captain nodded and surveyed the collection.

“Fine. Do whatever you can to quietly determine the contents, I’ll get the mate to gather names of any bioweapons crew we might have. And send me everything you all know about this Zeitkar company.” With that, he turned and strode from the hold.

The quintet was left standing with no direction for most of its members.

Finally, Robbyn said, “May as well get back to the other jobs, Veng. Can’t see as we’ll need much help here. Warn and me can stick around to keep the rest out.” She glanced at Warn for his confirming nod. He had nothing better to do.

The pair sat in silence for a time after the Goblin left.

Warn watched the door and considered modern piracy. It was a far cry from the historical adventure holos. Gone were the days when all a pirate needed was a ship, a gun, and knowledge of the trade lanes. Back in the old days of sea-based piracy. These days they needed eyes and ears in the ports, connections to fences for goods, information about goods and trends to keep from being cheated, even data on major corps now that private armies were common and doing things the legal authorities and governments wouldn’t. Never mind the facts that they needed bigger hauls to keep up a starship and falling off a sea-ship didn’t mean instant death. And, of course, a ship big enough to take on armed merchants meant a good sized crew, including specialists like engineers and armourers, not like those old ships where anyone could make rope, mend a sail, or do some carpentry. On the other hand, their chances of being caught were slimmer, space was an extremely large ocean.

His thoughts continued to roam over the hour or more that it took for Lernen and her assistant to comb through and record their special haul. Finding a secure place to stash the biomaterial took nearly as long, even with Warn and Robbyn rotating to help move the goods. Finally, Lernen was satisfied that the rest of the crew wouldn’t be able to find the cases, letting the couple go free.

The wererat made sure he memorized exactly which panel could be removed for access to the hidden space, just in case anything happened to the cargomaster.

After spending the whole day, into he wee hours, together, the two split to eat in different galleys before crashing for what was left of the night. One of the advantages of needing a reasonably large ship, Warn thought before his head hit the pillow, is that it was easy to spend time apart every now and then.

Seconds later, his body overrode his brain’s desire and simply shut every non-essential system down.

Presumably Robbyn’s followed suit, the last active conscious synapse managed to fire off.

The morning found Warn assigned to the hold, helping to disguise the pirated crates or stuff them into hidden storage. After a slower, circuitous route, they were a couple hours outside Alest. One more jump and they’d coast into the asteroid-station’s orbit. But they had to get through a system crawling with Patrol ships first.

One such ship had already contacted them, as the freighter they claimed to be, the captain’d said.

That meant there’d probably be boarding and a search.

The Nistar couldn’t jump for a while and couldn’t take most of the Patrol ships in the system anyway.

He shoved a crate into a concealed compartment. Crawling with Patrol probably meant three or four ships. That would be a lot for the Patrol. What they lacked in numbers, they made up for in tenacity and skills. The captain would play things safe.

With the last of the goods stowed, the half dozen crew in the hold vacated the area. Most, Warn thought, probably went to stow their personal arms and goods. Even if the Patrol boarded, there was no guarantee they’d confine themselves to the hold. Most of his own special toys were already hidden enough to avoid a cursory glance. In some ways, the ship really was, he thought, one part smuggler to its one part pirate. Back in the sea days, they’d probably have run. Those pirates didn’t have to deal with slow, recharging FTL drives. Simpler times.

Such thoughts carried the wererat to the ship’s rec room, near the galley.

The room was practically deserted, except for Stenn and a couple others using the antiquated exercise gear they’d picked up years ago. With little else to do until the inspection, Warn settled down to wait for his friend’s routine to end. The rest of the ship was in chaos, everyone rushing to look respectable, but he had little to do until talking was needed. Then the captain might call on his services.

In the meantime, keeping out of sight and helping to make the ship look like a freighter was the best course of action.

Warn sat and reviewed who he knew on Alest while Stenn finished. All the vids the ship had, he’d watched several times and he had no interest in watching the handful of exercisers. If there was any justice in the world, Talye would still be around on the station. She had, last he’d heard, the resources and ability to move the biologicals. Maybe Varen if that didn’t pan out. Or the captain probably had his own resources to deal with sales as well.

He slowly became aware that his Orc friend was standing nearby, waiting for him.

“Sorry, Stenn,” he apologized. “Got lost in thought.”

“No prob. Patrol on yet?”

The wererat shook his head, “Not yet, probably still ten, fifteen out. There’re a few ships out there, though. Destroyers, I hear.”

“What’s cap’n want then?”

“Stow contraband, keep low key, remember we’re traders, nothing big,” he shrugged, “The usual.”

The pair were walking the corridor, helping crewmates where they could when they were called to the cargo hold side airlock.

Warn jogged through the ship with the Orc close behind. The Patrol was starting to dock and connect airlocks.

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