Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Twenty

Credit: Bioware

           So you’ve decided to mount a deep-space scavenging operation!

            There are many ways to go about this depending on the choices you make—many paths open to you legally, economically, morally.  The first of three big questions: what to scavenge?  The galaxy’s long history of inhabitation left space replete with more relics than could reasonably be counted.  Sadly, most of them were of little to no commercial value.  Take out the archeological sites to focus on spots with potentially valuable technology, and you’re still left with thousands of prospects.

            The second question: what will the permits cost?  In the interest of limiting liabilities and at the behest of insurance companies, the Federal Commercial Excavation Act created a sliding scale of permit fees that increased with their distance from Terra.  Additional fees were tacked onto any operation in the Open Territories, the better to discourage incidental contact between human and Ouro.  Considering the very real costs and risks associated with such remote gambits, it becomes obvious to the shrewd investor that the enormous fees might be the easiest overhead to lop off.  There were the closer, safer, cheaper sites as well—but naturally those low-hanging fruit were the first plucked.  At this late date in human affairs, the good loot’s been got.

            But the decision to go illicit impacts the third question: who’s funding you?  Legitimate corporations might hold their noses and buy your wares after the fact, but they’ll balk at placing their names next to yours on a bank statement.  So you’re bankrolled by the sorts of people who fund illegal operations, though there are many breeds of such people and those that fund deep-space scavs aren’t the sort that fund drug smuggling.  The latter being a much more profitable and slightly less risky proposition, any patron of the former will likely be driven by curiosity or idealism.  You will need to determine, very early on, which is which.

            Having secured your operational funding, you’ll need to spend it wisely.  The ship must come first—before a single cutting pressure suit or cutting laser and certainly before personnel.  Anyone you approach will ask the same first question: got a ship?  If you answer in the affirmative they will want to know details, and if those details aren’t matched by the eventual reality they won’t trust you.  They’ll walk away and if they don’t they’re not the kind of crew you want, because only fugitives and the truly strung-out wager their lives on a confirmed bullshitter.  You can’t afford to bullshit, least of all about the ship, so find the ship first.  On that score you’ll start at the low-end commercial yards and work your way down the economic ladder from there until you reach the scrap heaps in the pursuit of a cheap Chen-Hau core.  The core’s by far the most valuable component of any starship, so the difference between a bad price and a good one can be $20 million—for that you can strip down a shit heap and rebuild a decent boat around that core.

            Next you hire your dig manager: someone with ability, experience and just a touch of desperation.  Not as hard as you’d think, given the underemployed mining talent around the ore-depleted Core worlds.  That manager helps you buy the gear, modding out your new vessel as you go, leaving enough space for a good haul on the way back.  Meanwhile, you’ll hire the rest of the crew.  You’ll need a Captain and First Officer.  You won’t mention to anyone below the X.O. that the operation is illicit; the others will know from the outside or figure it out sooner or later, but they won’t ask.  If the law comes calling, prosecutors will offer them immunity to testify so don’t worry your head over them.  You’ll need Pilots, preferably trained by a half-reputable corporate school.  You’ll need cooks, techs, diggers, loaders, welders and at least one qualified egghead to tell you what was worth taking home (who’d better be well-vetted by a third party, academic degrees being easily forged).  Between the ship, gear, crew and provisions, you will sink up to a hundred million dollars into the mission before it so much as grazes hard vacuum.

            Insurance?  It’s an interesting question whose answer depends on your conception of risk.  Companies can be found to insure your expedition—they’re easier to come by than financiers—but their rates will approach usury.  What’s more, should you accept, your psyche will be constantly dogged by the suspicion that you’ve just bet against your own success.  Maybe your patrons are willing to front more cash to protect themselves; if so, you’re in great shape.  If not, it’s a question of what you’ve got to lose.  Fortunes come and go, but one might find oneself in staggering debt to some really unfortunate characters.  The financial security provided by insurance could easily translate to genuine physical safety.  One might decide, as many managers did, to accompany the expedition itself into the unknown.  In for a penny, in for a pound!

            Once on your way, the first few weeks will be the most crucial.  You’ll be traveling, not yet deployed, not yet subjected to exhausting labor and soul-crushing isolation at the ends of the known universe.  You won’t yet be committing crimes and you’ll remain in populated human space, where quick stopovers allow your men (they will through self-selection be almost exclusively men) to indulge their baser instincts.  They also allow you to quickly dump anyone who steals, who proves too unstable or addicted to anything too vicious—softer drugs you needn’t necessarily tolerate, but probably ought to for practicality’s sake.

            At the outer reaches of human space where the flitting flocks of Federal and commercial traffic no longer marred the sky, your diggers will finally be freed of distractions and so you can teach them everything they’ll need to know.  In one long briefing after another your expert will show them slides of what they’ll expect to see on-site, what’s likely to be valuable and what’s not.  What’s most likely to make up those millions and millions you’ve already spent is not collectors’ trinkets but technology.  In countless other old battlefields, technology meant weaponry.  Tightly regulated at every scale beyond the personal—ship-to-ship weapons in particular were highly illegal for civilians—they therefore became the galaxy’s biggest-ticket items.  And the Baraheni Graveyard held floating loose in its fractal-infinite expanse more firepower than the rest of the galaxy put together.

*          *          *     
    
            A light on Lorena’s console flashed green.  Looking from her console to the scavenger mothership’s image on the big screen, she tried to imagine the people in there.  She tried to imagine their jokes, their worries, the lives that led them there.  Empathy must always come before judgment, her grandmother had been fond of saying.  The law’s harsh medicine went down easier with a smile and a dash of understanding.  She pressed a key near that winking mote.

            “ECV Konoko hailing human vessel, identify yourselves,” she declared, and repeated once more for protocol.

            Static popped and softly keened over miles of space.  “Receiving, Konoko,” came a reply at last: a man’s voice, deep like Obo’s but bearing a peculiar accent that turned his Vs into Bs.  Receibing.  The tinge of a habitat patois.  “TCV Toussaint acknowledges you and welcomes you to the region.”

            If they played this soft, she’d press the advantage.  “TCV Toussaint, if you are—as you appear to be—engaged in xeno-artifact excavation for commercial intent and not—as you do not appear to be—broadcasting valid authorization codes for your commercial enterprise, you are emphatically in violation of FCEA provisions.”  She should have looked up the precise section.  Dammit.

            A longer silence than before.  Konoko, we are not aware of any illegal activity aboard this vessel.”

            She smirked; talk about a sorry dodge.  “TCV Toussaint, I’m sorry to inform you that in the absence of authorization codes, any commercial activity is de facto illegal.  Who is the Commanding Officer of the vessel?”

            “That would be Captain Marcus Leaf, Konoko.”

            “Is Captain Leaf available at this moment?”

            “Yes, ma’am.  He’s hearing everything you say.”

            “I’d like to speak to him.”

            “I’m his representative, ma’am.”

            She couldn’t do much about that.  The law did not require civilian vessels to produce their commanders over comms.  “Very well, Toussaint.  Explain your business here.”

            “Rescue and recovery, Konoko.”

            Lorena frowned, puzzled, waited for further details that didn’t come.  Irritation spiked at the scavs’ evasive stalling.  To what purpose?   She sure as hell wasn’t going anywhere without answers.  She clenched her teeth then, admonishing herself for having thought dammit and hell in such quick succession.  Toussaint, who exactly are you rescuing?”

            Another long pause.  Konoko, we were dispatched from Archimedes Station on Twenty-Two February to retrieve an engineering team from our present location.  We are working towards that objective.”

            “Where’s the team?”

            “They are safe and well, Konoko.  We have met some difficulties extracting their equipment but have the situation well in hand.”

            “Bullshit,” Beatrice hissed in her ear.

            Toussaint, the fact remains that your engineering team is violating Federal law by operating without their auth codes.  I’m afraid I must insist all your operations cease at once.”

            “That can’t be done at the moment, Konoko.  We have delicate proprietary equipment already deployed—“

            “None of my business, Toussaint,” she cut him off.  “Upholding the law is.  Explorer Corps ships have an enforcement mandate for crimes in commission.”  Mandate was a strong interpretation: one the most territorial Navy brass would contest.

            “Again, Konoko, we must insist there is nothing illegal here.”

            Lorena killed her microphone, sat back and pondered.  Vivek, tracking her thoughts, jumped in for the first time.  “Ask yourself: how important is this?  Do we really care?”

            “Of course we care,” she snapped back.

            He sighed.  “Enough to board?  That’s what you’re really talking about.  Otherwise we’ve got no real proof.”

            “Laws are laws and the Corps is a public service,” she reminded him.

            “Hell, the Navy would tell us to roll on past!  To say nothing of Contact.”

            She raised an index finger in the air.  “Yes, but what if this were a normal cruise?  If we just ran across them?  We’d go, right?  We’d do our jobs, right?”

            “Yeah, I guess,” he grumbled.  “But that’s not the situation.”

            Lorena crossed her arms.  “It matters not at all to me what Contact and Navy think.  You’ve complained yourself about the meddling they’ve done.  So think of this as a rebuke, if you like.  I say it’s our job,” and with that, she put the microphone back on.  Vivek had to clam up.

            “Attention, TCV Toussaint, we believe you are operating in violation of the Federal Commercial Excavation Act and intend to inspect your operations.  Prepare to be boarded.”

*          *          *          

            She tried to catalogue every component of her new Gryphon suit as Obo, in the course of dressing her, explained them.  The visor interface in particular stood out from the old Marinas.  Karl helped with the last seals, already secure in his own suit.  Only they two would go.  They would take pistols with them, though Lorena forbade Karl from so much as thinking about his.

            Konoko pulled into position just off Toussaint’s bow.  The scav ship dwarfed the clipper: a hundred-sixty meters long and sixty wide if one counted the splayed docking arms.  Those arms were clearly new additions to the structure, made from a different alloy and painted bright yellow in contrast with the fuselage’s grungy grey.  Two bulging pods of fresh unvarnished steel at Toussaint’s hips had been lately affixed for extra cargo space.  She was a functional monstrosity, a chimera of scraps—her thrusters too weak for any sharp acceleration, nearly immobile but for that devilish trick of physics called a Chen-Hau field.

            “We’re stopped,” Vivek called from the bridge.  “And they’ve sent the docking collar codes.”  They’d no reason not to; Konoko’s onboard A.I. could have hacked the airlocks in seconds.  Powerful computers were an expensive luxury few scav ops could afford.

            Lorena stepped into the equipment bay with Karl Genz and the doors sealed behind them.  They heard a hiss but felt no change in pressure as Obo withdrew the atmosphere.  The outer doors opened with their typical puff of frost.  The two of them stepped out into the universe.  “We’re remote,” she called back.

            “Roger,” Vivek replied.  “Keep visual until the bay’s sealed and give confirm.  Ash, close ‘em.”

            They watched the doors soundlessly shut.  “Confirmed, bay sealed and secure.”  Standard procedure to ensure the airlock wasn’t tampered with.  Konoko’s security was paramount—hence why they hadn’t docked directly.  Lorena and Karl turned and hit their thrusters, motoring across the slender gap towards Toussaint’s passenger airlock.  Set into her neck just thirty meters back from her nose, it was bracketed with flashing green lights.  As Lorena drew close, she noticed one of the six bulbs sputtering in its mount from some minor wiring short.

            Vivek watched the digital chatter running between the two ships.  “It should open any moment,” he informed his superior.  “Please be careful in there.  You never know what these kinds of people will do.”

            “They’re scavs, not pirates—violence just cuts into their margins.  Besides, I don’t think this is a rowdy bunch.  They’d have been angrier on the radio.”

            “You only talked to one man.  Could be a trap.”

            She rolled her eyes inside her helmet.  “To what end?  Anything happens to us, you’ll bolt and bring the Navy.  They know it.”  With two pilots and a Systems Tech, Konoko could travel at top speed even without her C.O.

            The airlock was a gash of widening light before them.  Through its threshold they passed, visors de-polarizing at last to reveal a room barely large enough to accommodate their bulky suits.  The white-painted walls were marked with scuffs and grease stains.  Doors closed behind them and pressure returned to the chamber.  Though a chime indicated the chamber was safe, neither Lorena nor Karl removed their helmets.  If something unpleasant did wait for them on the other side, they’d want the protection.

            A mechanical whine attacked their ears as the internal door slid open with just the barest hitch halfway through the motion.  In the hall on the other side waited two men: one tall and rakish wearing a prim red jacket with black piping, the other slight and stooped with age in a simple brown jumpsuit.  The older man peered at a small screen set into a control panel; Lorena took him for a tech.  “Doctor Lorena Mizrahi, Commanding Officer, ECV Konoko,” she declared herself with a half salute.  Handshaking with a servo-powered grip was an unsafe proposition.

            The younger man gave a more earnest salute of his own.  “Pleased to meet you, Doctor.  Taran el-Assan, Executive Officer, TCV Toussaint,” he affected a careful French accent for the ship’s name.  Green-brown eyes glittered above a proud aquiline nose; dark stubble stood along his jawline.  Thick oily hair swept from part to ear like a charge of cavaliers.  He was, Lorena decided, entirely too handsome for a commercial spacer.  The older tech, with his stringy beard and work-gnarled digits, was a far more representative sample of that particular breed.

            “This is Scanner Tech Karl Genz,” she indicated her companion, holding under one arm a locked case with his gear.  “We’re here to inspect your operation.”

            El-Assan spread his arms in welcome.  “So you’ve said over radio.  As loyal Federal citizens, we naturally submit to your inspection.  But first, would you like assistance with your pressure suits?  I can call another tech,” he offered with eyebrows guilelessly raised.

            “I’m not sure that’s necessary, Mister el-Assan.  Perhaps you’d best take us directly to your C.O.”  Lorena kept her voice level.

            For the first time her interlocutor looked less than comfortable.  “I intend to, Doctor.  Captain Leaf is on the bridge as we speak.  But I don’t think you’ll be able to get through the hatch.”

*          *          *          

            Indeed they couldn't; Lorena nearly laughed when she saw the door.  Toussaint’s bridge, like so many of her other components, had begun its life as part of another ship—in this case at the nose of a military shuttle some hundred years before.  An eagle-and-anchor symbol the Navy no longer used crowned a small open hatchway that barely admitted a suitless Lorena and forced Karl to awkwardly fold his gangly frame.  The old shuttle’s armor and avionics had been stripped to make more room and presently the bridge contained just four seats, clustered in the center of the room to face outward at various consoles.  These systems, Lorena noted, looked fairly new.  Though December was months past, an artificial Christmas wreath dangled from the ceiling by a metal hanger.  Only two people sat at their stations: a rough-looking man with long braids whom Lorena took to be the comm. officer, and a tiny woman in khaki trousers and a many-zippered leather vest.  Both looked up at the sound of footsteps.

            The woman instantly rose from her chair and stepped towards them.  Perhaps a few years younger than Lorena and quite short, she’d pulled her sandy blonde hair back into a severe bun.  “Captain Maxi Leaf, Commanding Officer, TCV Toussaint,” she declared, extending a hand.  Though her face wore a serious look, her voice emerged remarkably high and girlish.

            Lorena took it, stunned but quickly processing this new information, recording everything through her handy clipped to her lapel.  Co-opting Toussaint’s internal network, it beamed everything back to Konoko.  “Concerned for appearances?” she asked.

            A sheepish smile spread over Captain Leaf’s features.  “This far from home, we try to project all the toughness we can.  Nate’s ugly mug is the best defense we’ve got.”

            The comm. officer looked uncomfortable at her levity, shrugged.  “They just wanted the audio.”

            “What’re you doing out here, Captain?” Lorena returned to business.  “I’d like a full rundown of your crew and operation.”

            “Of course you would,” the other woman nodded gamely.  “Let me take you to our op center and I’ll fill you in.”

*          *          *          

“We can’t fit much gear on the bridge,” Maxi explained as they tromped through Toussaint’s empty, grungy halls.  Built to house some thirty workers, it presently had the feel of a ghost town.  Evidence of habitation abounded without a human soul in sight: half-crumpled cans of sugary drink stuck by their own residue to the floor, a line of empty boots outside a sleeping compartment.  “Had to build an op center to monitor everything below.  That’s where the boys are.”

“How many still aboard?”

“Nine,” she answered without hesitation.  “Three bridge crew, three techs, assistant dig manager and two Pilots who keep to themselves.  Their cabin’s in the way back.  And sixteen more guys below.”

“Are you the only woman?”

“The Pilots are a husband and wife, but otherwise yes.”

“And how’s that?” Lorena was genuinely curious.

“Oh, it’s great right now.  Nearly lost my mind on the haul out here,” Maxi chuckled.  They reached an intersection and she hung such a sudden right Lorena almost tripped over her heels.  “It’s just down here.”

The “op center” was little more than a large closet stuffed to the gills with monitors.  A single console sat in the middle to regulate the chaos, currently occupied by a babyfaced young man whose eyes flowed restlessly over the streams of tightbeamed data.

“Quang, take a break for a while,” Maxi told him, breaking his vigilant trance.  He double-taked seeing Lorena and Karl, got up so quickly his knees banged the underside of his desk and scuttled out past them without another word.

“Wait!” his Captain called, halting him in his tracks.  She glanced to Lorena: “you want anything from the galley?  Hot drinks?”

“No, thank you.”

“I’m sure you folks get much better on your ship,” Maxi nodded as Quang scampered away.  “Well, take a seat and check us out!”

There was not, in fact, a seat to take.  Certainly not seats for both her and Karl—she’d meant it figuratively, Lorena decided.  Screens showed what Lorena surmised were drop pods’ bare boring interiors.  Still more illuminated chambers inside the alien wreck, where heavy equipment squatted and men worked with cutting lasers.  Some wore pressure suits, most not, but all wore helmets of some description and every helmet bore a small camera.  Two monitors closest the console were split by grids to display nine video feeds each; a total of eighteen, all Toussaint’s away crew accounted for.

“Tell me what I’m looking at,” said Lorena, “because this looks exactly like a scav dig.”

“If that’s the case,” Maxi sighed, “that’s probably because it is.”

Lorena snapped her head around.  “What?  What about your rescue and recovery?”

“That was a lie,” the diminutive starship captain shrugged.

Stepping closer with hands on hips, Lorena took a deep breath and let it out.  “You can’t lie to me.”  Fury rose in her chest.

“Well, I did.  I hoped you’d roll along on your way.”

She felt as though she might explode.  How could this woman be so flippant?  She’d just lied to a Federal enforcement official.  “Why?  If it’s this transparent—“

“What was I supposed to do?” Maxi interrupted her with a flash of frustration and she found herself silent.  “Can’t pack up the whole op.  Don’t have some elaborate ruse in case the fucking Explorer Corps showed up in the fucking Graveyard.  What sort of atrocious luck is that?  It’s unbelievable.”

“Bad luck or no,” Lorena said smugly, “we’re here and you’re in a whole heap of trouble.”
“I could be.  Or we might come to an understanding,” she steepled her fingers on the console desk, immaculately trimmed and varnished nails lit blue by the grainy helmet-cam feeds.

“Are you trying to bribe me?” Lorena took one hand off her hip to point in the other woman’s face.

Maxi looked exasperated.  “No.  I’m trying to talk to you.  We’re here for a good reason and I’m betting you are too.  So let’s talk about that.  Alone, please.”

Lorena, stewing, contemplated her counterpart.  She tried to become less angry and it didn’t work.  The nerve of this woman, flouting Fed law and having the gall to get huffy when caught.  “It’s fine,” Beatrice said suddenly over her shoulder, breaking the tension, taking Karl Genz by the elbow.  “We’ll occupy ourselves.”

“Get scanning,” Lorena told them as with a gentle pull the willowy brunette led her Scanner Tech away.

NEXT TUESDAY, ASSUMING BLOGGER DOESN'T SPEND THE WHOLE DAY CRASHING: NEGOTIATIONS AND INTRIGUE! KARL BONDS WITH BEATRICE AND OUR STORY TAKES A DANGEROUS TWIST. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!

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