A Light In The Dark, p.1Nathan Lowell
A Light In The Dark
By Nathan Lowell
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All characters, places, and events in this work are fiction or fictionalized.
Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is coincidental.
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Copyright 2011 Nathan Lowell
Table of Contents
Diurnia System: March 15, 2333
Gunderson noticed nothing unusual in the approach to Diurnia Orbital. Even after Wanderer docked, latched into station power, and locked onto water and fuel lines, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Even the call from Confederation Customs was by-the-damn-book. When Curtis called from the main lock, normal took a powder.“Skipper? The customs guys are here but they’ve got backup.” Gunderson scowled at the intercom and looked over at Nancy Gaston, the first mate. “Backup?” She gave a little shrug and keyed the mic. “Backup, Mr. Curtis? What kinda backup?” “Blacksuits, sar, and The Dweeb is grinning at the pickup. He knows we’re watching.” Gaston sighed and shook her head. “Mr. Curtis, if you’re referring to Chief Customs Inspector Kniebling, please remember your manners.”
“Yeah, sorry, Ms. Gaston. Inspector Kniebling has a half a squad of TICs out there with him.”
“Trade Investigation...?” Gunderson said, scowling at his first mate. “What the...?”
She snorted. “Who knows with The Dweeb. Maybe we forgot to cross an i or dot a tee.”
“He’s a pain, but this is the first time he’s brought in the blacksuits. And he hasn’t even looked at us yet.”
Chief Customs Inspector Davis M. Kniebling earned his reputation as a stickler for the rules quite honestly. Every ship that docked at Diurnia Orbital got his personal attention. Where most ports cleared regular merchant traffic with a cursory inspection and a glance through the embargo locker, Inspector Kniebling followed the letter of the law—often keeping ships and crews tied up for several stans while he satisfied himself that nothing illegal entered the station.
Gunderson slapped the release on his seat belt and jumped out of the captain’s chair. “Tell Paul I’m on my way.”
While Ms. Gaston relayed the message, Gunderson bolted off the bridge.
“What cha got there, Paul?”
Curtis looked up from his display as the captain strode up to the lock.
“Damnedest thing, I ever saw, Skipper. Take a look for yourself.”
Gunderson glanced at the array of people lined up outside his lock, frowned, and crossed to look out the port just as the entry buzzer rasped three times.
“He’s up to three. That’s not good. We better let him in and see what he wants, Mr. Curtis.”
At Gunderson’s nod, Curtis keyed the lock open and even before it whined to a halt, three black suited Trade Investigation Commission officers rushed up the ramp and leveled shock rods at Gunderson and Curtis. The opaque face plates revealed nothing of the persons inside. Gunderson stood very still, his hands held palm out and away from his body.
A fourth officer, a rangy woman with chestnut hair just going to gray, strode up the ramp. She wore no riot helmet, only a simple black jump suit with TIC embroidered on the left chest. Her gaze flicked to the captain’s collar before she spoke.“Captain Gunderson, I presume?”
“Yes. That’s me, Officer.”
“You’re under arrest for tampering with cargoes, transporting illegal goods, and falsifying manifest data.”
Gunderson’s forehead furrowed so deeply, his eyebrows met in the middle. “Excuse me, officer?” He said after catching his breath. “Arrested for what?” His voice almost squeaked with incredulity.
The TIC commander sighed and shook her head. “You heard me. Tampering with cargoes, transporting illegal goods, and falsifying manifest data.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. What cargo? Which manifest?”
She pulled out a tablet and read from the screen, “Our evidence indicates that your current shipment of machine parts did not originate from Kazyanenko as it says on your manifest.”
“How the hell am I supposed to know that?” Gunderson bellowed.
Chief Inspector Kneibling’s face lit up in a satisfied grin.
Gunderson took a deep breath and scrubbed a hand across his scalp. “Sorry, Inspector...?”
“I’m Field Agent Meadows,” the TIC officer said. “And to answer your question, I suspect you wouldn’t be able to tell. This...” she waved her hands around at her colleagues with the stun rods, “is just standard procedure.” Her eyes flickered ever so briefly at Kniebling before returning to Gunderson’s face. She arched one eyebrow at him.
“Thank you for your understanding, Captain. Technically, you’re under arrest and your ship is hereby impounded until we have an opportunity to examine the ship, the cargo in questions, and any and all records relating to the transaction.” She paused to give him a chance to speak.
“Yes, Captain. The data forensics team is waiting on the dock and a cargo tug is waiting to pull your cans. We should have what we need in a couple of stans and then we’ll see what turns up.”
“I got that cargo off the standard cargo availability list at Dree,” he said after a moment.
“I’m sure you did, Captain.” The field agent’s voice held a note of warmth that surprised him. She smiled. “The last five or six instances have all turned up no wrong doing on the part of the carriers. You’ve just been duped into trying to ferry a cargo into Confederation space.”
“I’m no mule, Agent Meadows.” Gunderson’s brow furrowed again.
“I suspect that’s true, Captain,” she said with a small nod. “Let us prove it and get you off the hook.” Again, she glanced at Kniebling and back to him.
Gunderson sighed. “I don’t suppose I have a lot of choice, do I.”
Kniebling tittered. “No, Captain, you don’t.”
Agent Meadows quashed Kniebling’s gloat with a dark look and a hand on her side arm. “Inspector Kniebling, if you’d oversee the cargo tug? We’ll get on with the data forensics...?”
She gave a curt wave to a group of black suited people waiting on the docks before turning back to Gunderson.
“Captain? If you’d be so kind as to escort us to the bridge...?”
“May I secure my ship first?” Gunderson asked. “We’re still at navigation stations.”
“Of course, Captain.”
“Mr. Curtis, would you relay my complements to Ms. Gaston, ask her to secure from navigation stations, and set port-side watch, please?”
“Aye, aye, sar.”
As Curtis carried out the captain’s orders, Gunderson jerked his head toward the passage. “Welcome aboard, Agent Meadows. I think you’ll find everything you need this way.” Turning, he led the way into the ship.
Heard you ran up against The Dweeb over in Diurnia a few weeks back.” Smitty poured the beer as Gunderson levered himself into the booth.
“Bad news travels faster than light.” Gunderson took the offered glass and toasted his friend. “He got a chance to flex his muscle but nothing came of it.”
Smitty arched an eyebrow. “They give you the freight charges?”
Gunderson sighed and shook his massive head. “No, we’re out that much and delayed us by two standard days, but we still turned a bit on the two other cans.”
Smitty took a long pull of his glass. “What happened, anyway?”
“Damn data screw-up. Something in the record on a can of parts. It was supposed to be machine parts enroute from Zenovka to Diurnia. It got dropped in Dree and laid around the yard there for three weeks before we bid on it.”
“Not a high margin on it?”
Gunderson shook his head again. “Naw. Just straight freight. We had two high priorities and needed to grab something fast, so Vasily took it.” His face screwed into a grimace. “Not like we haven’t done that enough times in the past, yanno?”
Smitty nodded. “Yeah. I know.”
They sipped quietly for a bit before Smitty asked, “So what was it actually?”
Gunderson snorted. “That’s the thing. When they opened the can, it was filled with machine parts. Just like it was supposed to be.”
Smitty frowned. “Then why the shakedown by The Dweeb?”
“He claimed the data record was wrong. That the can had started from Kazyanenko, not Zenovka , and was supposed to be filled with raw flax.”
“So that was months ago. It never showed up on the records again until it got delivered to the holding yard in Dree.”
“Why is this your problem?” Smitty asked. “Why didn’t it get caught in Dree?”
“Trans-shipments don’t get reconciled,” Gunderson said. “Even if they do, you know how often these cans get reused. Somebody probably just messed up the routing codes and it got re-used before anyone spotted the error.”
“How did The Dweeb get involved?” Smitty screwed his face into a grimace.
“Typo caught his eye. I never spotted it. Vasily didn’t see it either.”
Smitty snorted once and asked, “A typo? For real?” He shook his head in disbelief. “What was miss-spelled?”
Gunderson sighed and shook his head. “That’s the damnedest part. Nothing was miss-spelled but the port of origin had extra spaces at the end. That’s what triggered the investigation.”
Smitty blinked several times as he processed the new information. “Extra spaces?” he asked, at last.
Gunderson nodded. “Just enough to cover up the last letters of Kazyanenko–like somebody had keyed over the name with Zenovka but then spaced out the ‘nko’ at the end.”
Smitty blew out an incredulous laugh. “Only The Dweeb would spot something like that!” he said after shaking his head a few times.
Gunderson shrugged and poured himself more beer. “Maybe so, maybe no, but there’s no record of this parts shipment originating from anywhere.”
Smitty frowned. “Where’d it come from, then?”
“Dunno.” He sipped before continuing. “Once they figured that I was just the dumb mule, they clammed up and lemme go.”
The two men paid attention to their beer and didn’t speak for several long ticks.
“How long have I known you, Gunderson? Thirty stanyers?”
Gunderson took a swig of his beer before answering. “Yeah. Something like it. Since the Academy. How long’s that?”
“Well, I was class of ‘02 and you were a year ahead of me.” Smitty sat back in his chair, reaching forward to spin his beer glass between thumb and finger.
“You got a point, Smitty?”
“When you gonna wise up, man?” Smitty’s question carried no rancor.
“Where do you think that shipment came from?”
Gunderson shrugged. “Zenovka, probably. Somebody just dropped the data record. Not like it hasn’t happened before. Why?”
Smitty didn’t respond, just stared at the glass in front of him.
“What?” Gunderson asked after Smitty made no response.
“You say that like my ex-wife.”
Smitty snorted and looked up at his friend.
“She was lying, too,” Gunderson said. “Give.”
“How many times you seen dropped data?”
Gunderson stared into his empty glass. “Dunno. A few.”
“Not that many. Maybe a dozen.” Gunderson drained his glass. “Enough to know it happens. First time I’ve ever been called on it.”
“First one you’ve ever seen coming into Diurnia?”
Gunderson thought about it for several ticks. “Yeah, probably.”
“What do you suppose the TIC will do about it?” Smitty asked after taking a sip of his own beer.
Gunderson rolled his shoulders. “Track down the ship that left the can at Dree. What else?”
“Think they’ll find anything?”
“What’s to find? It’ll turn out to be a data mix up.” He frowned at his friend. “Why? You know something about it?”
Smitty pursed his lips and shook his head. “Not me, brother. I’m just sittin’ here havin’ a friendly beer with an old classmate.”
“But, let’s just say I’ve seen this a lot. It’s only ever a problem here at Diurnia.”
“You think The Dweeb is cooking the data?” Gunderson asked.
Smitty’s eyes flickered around the room. “Not something I’d want to say out loud.”
Gunderson snickered and raised his glass in toast. “I’ll drink to that.”
Smitty lifted his own glass and clinked rims with Gunderson. “And the horse you rode in on.”
Welliver Orbital: May 20, 2333
Gunderson looked aft as the tug snugged up behind the Wanderer. He felt, as much as heard, the gentle thunk when the tug latched on.
“Tug reports secure and ready for pull out, Skip.”
“Thank you, Ernest. Are we ready to go, Nancy?” Gunderson turned to look at his first mate.
Nancy keyed her intercom and said, “Engineering? Status report please?”
Ralph Winslow’s voice sounded tinny on the small speaker. “Engineering is green for go, Bridge.”
She looked over to where Ernest Shackleton held down the astrogation terminal. “Astrogation?”
“Astrogation has course loaded and locked. We are green for go.”
Nancy turned to her own boards and scanned through several screens. “I show all ports and fixtures secured and crew stationed manned for getting underway, Captain. The ship shows green for go.”
“Then let’s go, shall we?” Gunderson smiled at her.
“Mr. Shackleton, signal the tug for pull back in ten on my mark.”
“Aye, aye. Pull back in ten.”
Gaston keyed the ship’s com again. “Cut us loose, Mr. Jordan.”
Jordan’s voice came back almost instantly. “Aye, aye, sar,” was followed by a dull thump from the bow and a green flash on the first mate’s display.
“Docking clamps released. Locks all show green, Bridge.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jordan. Secure for pull out.”
“Aye, aye, secure for pullout.”
Gaston keyed the ship’s com again. “Pull out in five, four, three, two, one, now,” she said as she watched the tug’s power linkages ramp up to take the strain of getting the ship underway.
The side of the orbital appeared to move away from the ship for a moment until Gunderson’s eyes adjusted to the reality of the ship’s movement.
“Underway at 14:16, Captain.”
The tug eased them back from the heaviest traffic areas around the orbital before cutting in a bow thruster and turning them into the outbound traffic lane and beginning the long boost toward the deep dark. On the bridge, the navigation detail settled down for routine monitoring—each lost in their own thoughts.
After nearly two stans, Gunderson noticed another tug pacing them off the port side. A quick inquiry showed Smitty’s ship, the Virginia Deere, locked in its solid embrace.
“Ernest, can you signal the Deere over there.”
Ernest looked up and out the armorglass on the port side. “Should be able to, Skip. They look close enough to patch into our shipnet.”
“Signal to Captain Smith. ‘Last one to Breakall buys the beer.’”
The second mate grinned and punched the keys.
After a few ticks a message popped up on the second mate’s screen. Gunderson saw Ernest frown at it.
“What’s he say, Ernest?”
Shackleton cocked his head to look at it again and the turned a quizzical expression on the captain. “He says, ‘Save some for me and I’ll buy you a round when I get there.’”
Gunderson turned to look at the other ship. The two tugs angled apart and the distance between them had already grown appreciably. “Almost sounds like he’s planning to be late, doesn’t it?”
Ernest grunted an agreement. “And I think he’s running light, too, Skip. He should be planning on beating us.”
Nancy asked, “How can you tell?”
Shackleton scrubbed a hand over his mouth and looked a bit sheepish. “I—uh—know his cargo chief.”
Gunderson arched an eyebrow at the first mate before turning back to Shackleton. “You know Martha Thompson?”
He gave a half-hearted shrug. “Yeah. Kinda.”
Nancy gave a little chuckle. “You and Martha? Really? Isn’t she kinda...I hate to say it...old for you?”
Ernest looked at her, a wounded expression on his face. “What? She’s a fine woman and has great taste in books.”
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