They came to a halt in front of the captain as the thud of the Patrol’s airlock tunnel reverberated through the hull. The wererat took his place just behind the captain with Stenn and a couple others behind him.
It took a moment for the lock to cycle before the Patrol’s officials came on-board.
The Patrol squad was led by a young human in the brown robes and outfit of a Star Knight, not their full name, Warn knew, but good enough. Although the leader bore only a short, straight bladed sword, her unit was well armored in matching grey uniforms and carried rifles. The Knights were the core, and leadership, of the Patrol. He’d heard that some wore other colors and even infiltrated various crime networks, but had never seen them.
Without a word, the squad fanned out and started searching the hold while their leader stood before the captain.
She bowed before saying, “Captain. I am Lieutenant Alphei of the Patrol, representing Captain Parhas of the Trition. My men, with your cooperation, will conduct a standard search of your ship for contraband. I suggest you cooperate.”
Warn watched the captain, certain the man would return pleasantries. No one aboard really wanted to test the rumors about the Star Knights’ combat prowess, at least not firsthand.
As certain as he was, the wererat still gave an inaudible sigh of relief when the captain said, “Of course, Lieutenant. We’re always happy to help the Patrol. My cargomaster, Lernen, will answer any of your team’s questions. Warn here will take care of your needs, as I am needed elsewhere, to see to a few repairs with our FTL drive. We were not scheduled to drop out here, something malfunctioned.”
A little forced politeness, the wererat noted, and deception were two reasons they still operated while so many crews were captured or killed.
Warn stepped forward as the captain and the Patrol officer exchanged bows. He half expected the knight to take a tour of the ship. Instead, she remained in place and simply looked around the hold.
Since she stood still, he took a similar stance and studied her.
Her head tilted slightly to the left, as if she were listening to something. All he heard was the hum and throb of the ship that the crew typically ignored, it was so constant. But there was nothing he’d consider unusual enough to focus on so intently. Maybe, Warn thought suddenly, she had an implant communicator. Those were common in some places, maybe the knights used them too, getting reports.
After a couple moments, the knight’s posture returned to normal and she seemed indefinably relaxed.
Alphei seemed to notice Warn for the first time.
“What is that?” she said, pointing toward the far hold wall.
The wererat jumped, “What?”
He had to jog to catch up since the knight was already halfway across the hold. Recalling stories about their powers, Warn silently offered thanks that she was headed away from the secret hold they’d stuffed the biologicals in.
He caught up as she said, “That crack in the wall. Right there. There isn’t a hidden door there, is there?”
Warn shook his head rapidly.
“No, it’s probably just that the ship’s old. We’re a bit behind on replacement parts and repairs. That’s an internal dividing wall, so not a high priority.”
The Patrol officer continued to look suspicious and he was uncomfortably aware of her squad still moving around the ship. His own crewmates had deserted the place after the initial exchange. That was their standard practice to keep some of the dimmer crew quiet.
Warn shrugged his indifference. “Feel free to check. I can call one of our mechanics down, if you like. I mostly deal with non-crew and help move cargo, so you’ll need one of them for more details.”
The robed woman stared at him long enough that Warn was reminded that some said they could read minds. He tried to keep his blank, only to fail, as always happened.
She turned away, apparently satisfied, and started back to her place by the airlock.
A short time later, a man wearing a Patrol sergeant’s stripes joined them.
After a quick salute, he said, “Everything’s clear, sir. No contraband in either hold, sir. Should we check crew quarters?”
“No, sergeant. Gather the troops, we’ve spent enough time here.”
Too many civilians and too few Patrol, Warn thought as he saw the squad off. That always helped them against the Patrol. Because they were led by the knights, and not many were drawn to the order, they had limited resources. It helped when the knight was young and inexperienced.
The instant that the knight and her squad were through the cycled airlock, Veng appeared with a couple of Lernen’s assistants. The Goblin silently handed Warn a small box and directed all three of his aides to different parts of the hold with hand signals. Without a word, the wererat switched on the homemade detector and started sweeping his part of the hold for bugs and homing devices. The Patrol was supposed to be too honorable to use such things, or entrapment, but the captain liked to be sure, another reason they were still operating. Veng had explained previously that the devices weren’t full proof, but they were better than nothing.
After an hour, as the engines were firing up again, Warn switched off the scanner and handed it back to the Goblin.
The techie gave a thumbs up a short time later. The hold was as clean as they could tell, given relatively old gear.
“Clear,” Veng announced. “The Patrol should be away now.”
“We jump in ten,” the captain’s voice came over the ship’s comm, “straight to Alest.”
Most of the crew spent the several hour jump to Alest making what repairs and maintenance they could to the ship. The rest saw to personal gear, simultaneously looking forward to shore leave and disappointed in their small haul this trip, at least so far as most of the crew knew.
Warn spent the time worrying about how he and Lernen were going to offload the biologicals. Getting rid of them and bringing in a large price would be easy. Finding a buyer who wouldn’t immediately turn around and use any malignant ones on a world’s populace was another story. They’d have to be careful if they didn’t want to be responsible for the potential demise of millions or billions. The captain, he knew, didn’t shrink at killing people, nor did most of the crew. But, the death they dealt out was personal and comparatively clean. Death by biologicals . . . it lacked even the worst pirate’s sense of honor. It was a source of pride for Warn that he never recommended small traders as targets, only corporate ships and the free merchants who carried their overflow cargos.
Since Robbyn was busy in the armoury, and therefore couldn’t provide distraction, the wererat settled down to try sorting through his known contacts on Alest. He hoped to have a short list of four or five to compare with Lernen and present to the captain when they docked. The chance that there would be some overlap in their lists was pretty good, if only because there were a finite number of fences on the station.
A few hours later, as the ship came out of FTL, Warn looked for the cargomaster in the hold. He’d only managed to cut the list to a little under a dozen. Even some of those weren’t entirely reliable about payment or about where they’d sell the goods, in his opinion. It was entirely possible that Lernen had different dealings with some of them. Maybe they dealt better with humans or cargo-types than with him. There were probably rumors about his “condition” on the station, even though he didn’t advertise his special talents.
After a quick glance around, he left the datapad with his list on Lernen’s console since he couldn’t find the woman. They still had an hour of STL approach to the station, for safety and defense purposes, so that’d be more than enough time to compare.
By the time the ship entered Alest orbit, Warn had a strong short list.
He looked out a viewport at the asteroid below them. The direction, of course, was fully subjective. A variety of other large ships were in similar orbits nearby. Everyone, he knew from experience, would have to be shuttled over since the hollowed rock couldn’t dock large ships. Small freighters, yes. They were significantly larger, though.
Since Lernen was staying in the hold, that left the wererat to check their contacts.
He joined Robbyn in the shuttle bay in time to get a spot on the first shuttle.
The pilot glanced over her shoulder at them. She said, “They’re on, finally, Cap’n. Hopper One ready for launch.”
Warn felt a momentary twinge of remorse for holding up others’ shore leave as he hurriedly strapped in. The guilt vanished as his thoughts turned toward his job on the station and a brief surge of acceleration hit before the art-grav adjusted.
The trip between ship and station was thankfully quick. The Nistar’s shuttles weren’t intended for passengers or comfort. They’d been built as cargo haulers, the seats folded down from the walls. As many people as possible were packed in, shoulder to shoulder, to get everyone to station as quickly as could be done, to save fuel costs. Warn found it difficult to think when he was crammed in between his wife and a Dwarf he barely knew. The latter had only joined the crew in the last couple weeks, he recalled, their first Dwarf in some time.
Once they matched the station’s slight rotation and docked, Warn fairly flew along the corridor that tunneled through nearly a hundred yards of rock. He had no problems with ships or space, but there was something about the hollow asteroid that drew him more than any other station.
The view that leaped upon them at the end of the hallway was, he admitted, probably part of the allure.
Residents of the station had built structures along the entire inner surface of Alest. The effect was a bit visually disconcerting at first, but one grew used to it. Art-grav plates, augmented by a little rotation, ensured that ‘down’ always pointed to the rock’s exterior regardless of where a person stood. The subjective ‘up’ was always the empty space at Alest’s center.
There were even gardens and parks with real trees and grass.
And drunken, rowdy pirates, privateers, and smugglers, he reminded himself. The green places were mostly in neighborhoods where the natives lived. The station’s AI rarely let common shiprats in those areas. Its robotic drones patrolled the streets and corridors to keep some places calm, normal, and off limits.
The station was probably better that way, he thought as, flanked by Robbyn, he set out for one of the seedier parts of the station. No place could be totally lawless. There had to be some core, or balance, otherwise the place would either be destroyed by its residents or they’d all scatter. Anarchy, he thought, didn’t work very well for a society, in fact it was the opposite of society. The AI enforced law abiding parts of Alest balanced the lawless, gave the residents whom the pirates relied upon a place to sleep safely and raise families. If it weren’t for that, Warn figured the station would have failed decades ago as there’d be no tavern owners, fences, or ship mechanics on board.
Warn’s thoughts were interrupted as his subconscious recognized key landmarks.
He had to pay more attention to his surroundings. Lack of awareness in this part of town caused people to end up in the proverbial gutter. There were no gutters on Alest, of course, no rain. And maintenance droids took care of the debris, organic or otherwise.
They’d decided to try Lernen’s contacts first, in the assumption that she’d have more current contact with people who dealt in bulky merchandise. Warn at least thought that would be the case. Then again, he knew his own contacts better than Robbyn did. Even the captain, who wanted the goods off his ship, agreed that they couldn’t trust feelers or negotiations to the station’s comm channels. Most people assumed there were government and police spies on Alest, despite the AI’s assurances. It helped their case that most pirates and smugglers could think of several ways to sneak on the rock. Besides, he didn’t know the cargomaster’s contacts, so face-to-face would give a chance to read them.
But, Warn hadn’t thought the woman’s best contact would be in one of Alest’s worst neighborhoods.
It only took a couple minutes of looking before they spotted the bar he worked out of.
Robbyn led the way in, for safety, and scanned the room as Warn told the door bouncer that he wanted to see Fynn. In answer to the half-Ogre’s look, he added a few credits and Lernen’s name.
As they went to the bar, the wererat saw the bouncer speaking into an earpiece comm.
Probably a good arrangement, he thought as his partner kept an eye on the other patrons. Fynn got free security and the bar got extra patronage as he made his visitors wait out front. The fence’s place would be on the second floor of the dingy building, he decided. Fire escape or hidden door to the neighboring building through the shared wall. If this had been anywhere else they’d be ways to elude the police. On Alest, they were probably meant to escape drunk and angry patrons. That was how he’d set things up. Add two or three guards, because the bar’s muscle was loyal to someone else, if to anyone.
Very nice set up indeed, the wererat thought as Robbyn drew his attention to a tall Dwarf heading their way.
The Dwarf, maybe half-Dwarf, Warn amended, barely glanced them over.
“Fynn says to get lost yourselves, or we’ll be sure you’re lost.”
Warn didn’t have to see Robbyn to know she’d tensed and assessed their ‘friend.’ He simply shrugged, “Since I assume you’re in touch, tell Fynn we’ll happily leave and offer out goods to a competitor, Lernen said Fynn probably couldn’t afford or move the goods anyway. The offer was just a courtesy, since they’ve known each other for so long . . .”
It was, potentially, a dicey gambit at best. With luck, Fynn’s reputation and ego would be on the line and he’d go for it. Or his greed would win out, didn’t matter which way to Warn. At worst, they could be shot and Lernen’s relationship with this fence would be ruined.
The fact that the Dwarf looked angry wasn’t a good sign.
Warn was surreptitiously eyeing the door and trying to silently signal Robbyn when their opposite spoke.
“Fynn says, ‘Cheap tactic, not one I’d expect from a friend of Lernen. Not inspired either.’ But, Fynn will see you, to reward guts. No promises.”
The wererat waved toward the stairs, “That’s all we asked for. Lead on, no tricks from us.” He hoped the partial, sample, manifest of biologicals they’d brought would be enough to get the fence’s interest and spark a purchase.
They were followed up the stairs, the part-Dwarf clearly having done this before.
At the top, the tough grunted, “Right, at the end.”
In a few steps, Warn and Robbyn stood outside a surprisingly solid door, given the state of the rest of the bar. Even though it wasn’t visible, the wererat spotted the place he figured a pinhole camera would be, where he’d put one at least.
The door swung open automatically, with no one near it.
Warn first noticed the large, heavy desk that dominated the tiny room. Its light tan wood clashed with the dark grey, washed out walls. Probably armored, he thought, given Fynn’s job and the kind of people who were in need of a fence’s services. His eyes traveled to the windows, almost missing the woman who was swallowed by the desk.
He came back to her with a start as the Dwarf took a position by the door.
The two guards flanking the desk, both Human, indicated that the desk’s occupant was Fynn. His own escort had probably already assessed them. Warn took a moment to follow suit as he adjusted himself.
“My associate tells me you have something of interest from Lernen,” the fence said, without pleasantries or rising. “Why didn’t she contact me herself, as usual?”
“She is rather busy,” the wererat quickly replied, “The goods are sensitive, so she’s in the best position to keep an eye on them. I have a sample list, it’s incomplete, but should have enough to get an idea.”
The Dwarf intercepted Warn’s datapad and took it to Fynn.
She spent a few moments skimming it as Warn waited and Robbyn traded measuring looks with the guards.
Just as the wererat started to get concerned, Fynn looked back up at him.
“Pretty heavy stuff,” she said. “I’m not saying I can’t move it, but it would cost and hang around a while . . . buyers aren’t exactly lining up. I can offer a couple thousand for half this list. Best offer.”
Warn shook his head. “No deal. That stuff alone, not counting the rest, has gotta be worth over a million. Even figuring a mark up on sale, half that list should be at least a couple hundred thousand.”
“True, but it’s pretty specialized stuff and easily recognized. Moving it is going to be rough, it’ll probably sit here for a while. I’ll have to store it for a while, and they’re pretty hot, even for storing on Alest.”
Warn shrugged, “In that case, we’ll have to take them elsewhere.”
“Good luck. There’s not many on the station who can move biologicals, even in smaller quantities.”
“But there are enough,” the wererat said. “Thanks for the time.”
He turned to leave while Robbyn watched the thugs, she followed in his wake.
They were a couple blocks from the bar before Warn spoke again.
“Not a great meeting, but not unexpected. Let’s see Harrik, he’s somewhere near here, unless he’s moved.”
Robbyn changed direction to match him and waited a block before asking, “He’s the one who shot your last partner?”
“Yep. But that was nearly ten years ago, and in his defense, Morim deserved it. He was a frecking ass and insulted Harrik’s family.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
Warn smirked, “He made the Nistar’s crew look like saints and perfectly polite gentlepersons.”
He was amazed to see Robbyn smile out of the corner of his eye. It wasn’t often she broke on a job. Usually the impassive, constantly alert mask was her default state. Well, unless the job involved blowing something up. Then, the best description he could think of for her emotional state was giddy. Still professional, but also like a high school boy with firecrackers.
“Harrik will likely take at least half the stuff at the price we want. He’s fair, as fences go, and about as honest a person as you’ll find on this part of Alest.”
And professional Robbyn was back. Not even a noncommittal response.
They returned to the Nistar a few hours later, empty handed except for the information that Harrik had been knifed in a brawl a week before. He’d been, so far as they could tell, an unfortunate bystander and hadn’t made it. His network and contacts were already absorbed by other fences. Telling the captain about this failure didn’t go over well, but at least Warn’s talents were rare enough to keep them on board.
A few days later, Lernen and Warn had to settle for a third of what they’d hoped. There were only a couple on the station who would touch the goods, so they had to admit it was a buyer’s market and just take what they could get. The captain getting on them about the repair and reoutfitting bills didn’t help. At least the other stuff had sold fast, Warn had thought, and covered some of the damage. Still, they’d only break even, which meant an unhappy crew without pay.
The day they sold the biotech, the wererat booked passage on a ship to one of the region’s busiest ports, hoping to find a rich ship.