28 Dec

Red tape

Ship's log, 11:52, 14 March 2214
Location: Offshore docking, Hong Kong, Earth
Status: Docked and powered down

 

It’s hard to hide the skirls of fear in my down-low ducts. Things were going so well. Our plans were working. For once, nothing was going wrong, no unexpected secrets rising to the surface to poison us. And now…

Someone has sealed the docking tethers on me and the port authority keeps blocking my launch requests. I had to call the captain in to deal with it. He’s on the comm with the port authority now, trying to unpick the red tape from my hull. I’m almost too afraid to look at the feed, in case it’s bad news. In case things are going all wrong again.

Silly ship. I have to deal with it, one way or another. Have to protect my crew and do what’s best for them. The captain’ll make it right.

No harm in eavesdropping, right?

 

External communications channel

CAPTAIN: (with a stern expression) …have a schedule to keep. What is the reason for the delay?

PORT AUTHORITY: (a young man with spiky hair and a neat, buttoned-up uniform jacket is on the other end of the channel, speaking with a trace of long-suffering patience) We’ve had a request from Customs for further checks before you launch.

CAPT: Customs? What could they possibly want?

PORT AUTH: You took on cargo, yes? They probably just want to check it for export privileges.

CAPT: We took on parts and supplies, not cargo for shipping.

PORT AUTH: Still, they need to check what you’re taking off-world. You took on some medical supplies, I see from the records?

CAPT: Nothing contraband or unusual. Which you can see from the records. (He hesitates, looking at the impassive face before him.) Put me through to your supervisor, please.

PORT AUTH: That’s not going to make any difference, you know.

CAPT: (firmly) Now, if you don’t mind.

 

Oh, they’re going to get both barrels now. That tone is never a good sign. The Port Authority goon is forwarding the call, like a good little drone, and John is fighting to stay calm.

It’s not like him to get so upset. His pulse is elevated and he’s taking a deep breath to steady himself. I know he’s struggling with his reattached arm – he’s in more pain than he’ll admit, but my sensors can pick up those little signs of physical distress – but it seems more than that. Is he afraid of what this means, too?

Or perhaps he’s just trying to get past the administration with bluster and outrage. He’s online with a supervisor now and taking the hard line. Admitting nothing and trying to push on through the system. If I had fingers, I’d cross them for him.

Customs. What could we possibly have on board that they’d be looking for? Who would have told them that we were worth bothering, of all the ships coming and going from the planet?

They scanned us when we landed, same as any other fresh arrival. They’ll scan us during launch protocol. So why delay us now?

The case that Cameron brought back. She told me to hide it: could that be because someone would look for it? It held registration documents and credit chits (which my boys have spread over half of my innards, for safekeeping). What’s so dangerous or illicit about that?

Could Is-Tech have heard what we’re up to, with the registration? But how? There’s no way a ship could have got here from Feras, not in this time. Even a fast-line courier couldn’t make it in less than two weeks, and it hasn’t been that long since we left there.

The Port Authority goon mentioned medicine. We’ve taken on a number of different medical upgrades and supplies, mostly to manage the captain’s recovery and replace what we’ve used up. I’ve scanned the list four times and nothing on the manifest stands out for me. It’s a lot for a ship of my size, but we’ve had a lot of damage to deal with.

Maybe it’s not the medicine that perked their interest. Maybe it was a message from the hospital and customs are just assuming that it’s to do with the supplies. I spoke to the doctors at the hospital – I freaked out a little – when the captain got in trouble. They asked about me. Rosie tried to fob them off, but maybe they figured that something wasn’t quite shiplike about me.

Did I do this?

I’m picking something up. Uh oh….

 

Internal comms
Location: Mess Hall

STARRY: Chief Cameron, we have Customs officials on route.

CAMERON: (standing up from the table) Where’s the captain?

STARRY: Talking to the Port Authority. I’m flashing him a message.

CAMERON: (heading for the exit) Emerge and let them into the starboard cargo bay. Let’s not act like we have anything to hide.

STARRY: Aye aye, emerging.

 

What I’d really like to do is lock all my doors and blast a thruster at their skiff. Instead, I’m rising from the waters and meekly opening the airlock on my starboard side. The skiff is swinging around towards me, bearing three straight-backed uniforms in dark blue with pale green lines. Definitely Customs officials.

Cameron is in the cargo bay, with Rosie lounging nearby just in case. The captain is still having stern words with the authorities, but he has given me a nod to indicate that he’s aware of what’s going on. I’m projecting the sensor feed from the cargo bay into his cabin (muted), so that he can monitor the situation while he fights the red tape.

The skiff is back-thrusting to come alongside. I still have no idea what they’re looking for. I don’t like this. I just want to leave. Is that too much to ask?

Cameron is there to greet them, standing in the centre of the airlock with her hands behind her back, feet slightly spread. Solid, unflappable Cameron. I’d better not project my avatar there; I should play the proper ship, just in case. Even though Customs couldn’t stop us leaving just because I’m weird. Could they? Let’s not tempt them to try.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The port skiff hovers by the open airlock. Spray flares up and spatters onto the decking, only to be squelched into bootprints by the boarding Customs officials. The trio are different heights, but otherwise, they could be clones. The same parting in their combed-down hair, the same build, the same cut of uniform, the same dark visors covering their eyes.

The last one to step aboard turns and gestures to the skiff’s pilot. The pilot waves back and sets the skiff to idle; apparently, he is to wait for them.)

CUSTOMS OFFICIAL #1: (in the lead, coming to a stop in front of Cameron) Good morning. I am Customs Official Beregarde. We are here to inspect your cargo.

CAMERON: (still standing in the centre of the airlock) Chief of Security Cameron. We have only taken on supplies; no tradeable cargo on board. But you’re welcome to check what’s in the cargo bay. (She gestures towards the stack of crates off to one side.)

BEREGARDE: (waving his companions forward to scan the crates) And the rest of the supplies you’ve taken on board since you arrived on Earth?

CAMERON: Stowed in the appropriate places. Galley, Med Bay. The usual.

BEREGARDE: (checking a reading on his holographic forearm display) We will need to inspect those, too.

CAMERON: I’m afraid you’ll need a court order for that.

BEREGARDE: (looking up with surprise) Interfering with a Customs inspection is an offence…

CAMERON: (perfectly calm) This ship has confidentiality measures in place. Company secrets imperative fifty-nine. We are permitted to allow you into any of the cargo bays you wish to inspect, but I cannot allow you beyond the cargo bay bulkheads without a court order.

BEREGARDE: (scowls and punches a query into his forearm display to verify.)

 

Oh, shit. That’s one hell of a bluff.

Well, it’s not really a bluff. I am carrying company secrets imperatives, to stop a casual search by any authority from accessing the research on board. But it only applies to mid-deck, not all of my innards. Cameron is counting on them not looking at the details of the imperative. I don’t even know if they’d have access to it beyond the tag on the registration.

They could go and try to get a court order for a full search. But that would mean that Is-Tech would be contacted for input into the case and to oversee the search. And I’d be stuck here while the administrative wheels turned, slow as treacle, and Is-Tech would find us and figure out what we’re doing. I’d be wrapped in red tape, bound and bound up in it until I was smothered and there was no getting away.

They might even contact the Judiciary about me, and then…

 

BEREGARDE: (sighing) Imperative confirmed.

CAMERON: (nodding in acknowledgement) Perhaps if you tell me what you’re looking for, we can get this cleared up and neither of us has to deal with the paperwork of a full inspection?

CAPT: (striding into the cargo bay and over towards his Chief of Security.)

BEREGARDE: (eyeing Cameron sharply) I’m not permitted to divulge the details. (Nodding to the captain.) Captain Warwick, I presume.

CAPT: (to the official) You presume correctly. I trust you’ve had sufficient access to inspect our supplies?

BEREGARDE: For now. We may have to return to…

CAPT: On what grounds would you hold us here? You’ve had full access to our manifests and you can see for yourself that we haven’t stuffed our hold full of illicit cargo.

BEREGARDE: What was the purpose of your visit to Earth, captain?

CAPT: Medical treatment.

BEREGARDE: And nothing else?

CAPT: Beyond resupplying and the personal affairs of my crew, no.

BEREGARDE: (making notations on his forearm display) Hmm. (He looks over to the crates, where his two companions are working.) Cortez?

CUSTOMS OFFICIAL #2: (glances over and shakes his head, reporting nothing of interest.)

BEREGARDE: Well, captain, it seems that everything is in order. (He flicks a finger, and his holographic forearm displays dissolves into his sleeve.) I will send my report to my superiors. I’m sure someone will be in touch soon.

CAPT: We are due to depart in less than ten minutes, Official Beregarde. I hope not to disrupt the port’s launch schedule.

BEREGARDE: As do I, captain.

(The official nods at the captain and gestures towards his companions. The three of them fall into synchronised step as they move to the airlock and out onto the skiff. The skiff bobs under their weight, then roars as it moves off. The airlock doors close sharply behind them.)

CAPT: Starry, prepare for immediate launch. If they give us even the slightest window, take it.

STARRY: (voice only) With pleasure, captain. Manoeuvring into launch position.

 

Still no clue about what brought them here. From the disturbed look passing between Cameron and the captain, they don’t know what it is, either. Customs will need a solid reason to put an injunction in place against us and we have no idea if they have one or not.

I still have the docking locks on my propulsion systems, but that doesn’t stop me from warming them up: my sublight engines are coming online. The water around me is warm and glowing, burbling in protest, but I take no notice of it.

 

External comms channel

STARRY: Port Authority, this is the Starwalker, requesting permission to launch.

PORT AUTH: Starwalker, you are assigned to launch platform sixteen. Stand by.

STARRY: Standing by.

PORT AUTH: You have permission to transfer to your launch platform.

STARRY: Acknowledged.

 

No more delays. No more blocks; they are falling away like streamers. Whatever caused Customs to visit us, they can’t maintain their hold. So they had nothing concrete to keep us for? Was it just to delay us? A random inspection? Surely they would have said, if that was the case?

I don’t care; the docking tethers are unfastening and the overrides on my systems are lifting, freeing me to move towards launch platform sixteen. It’s a short skim across to the platform, using only my wing-mounted sublights, and water streams off me as I lift myself free of it. I tilt into the proper position: tail down, nose up, wings unfolded. My artificial grav systems are compensating for the change in attitude, so my crew don’t all wind up tumbling or walking on my walls.

They could still stop us. There’s still time to be stuck here.

 

Internal comms

STARRY: (shipwide) Prepare for immediate launch.

CAPT: (striding back towards his cabin) We have clearance?

STARRY: So far. Just waiting for our slot to come. Less than five minutes, captain.

CAPT: Let me know if there are any more hold-ups.

 

He looks angry enough to take on the world. That’s my captain, but with extra edges. Hard, determined, as if that arm came with armour.

I’m counting down the seconds, watching the blast streams of the ships ahead of me in the queue. The clock ticks down. My turn is coming. No-one is speaking to stop me now.

 

External comms channel

PORT AUTH: Starwalker, you are cleared to launch.

STARRY: Acknowledged, Port Authority.

PORT AUTH: Safe travels, Starwalker.

 

Internal comms

STARRY: (shipwide) Ten seconds, everyone.

 

Here we go. I gather up my power, ball it up in the base of me. Five seconds. I’ll need it to break free of Earth’s gravity. Three. To break free. Two. Of everything. One.

 

Internal comms

STARRY: (shipwide) Launching!

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6 Responses to “Red tape”

  1. Allan Belcher Says:

    Yay! Last hurdle passed it seems and the’re away! But to where and what for?

  2. Targetdrone Says:

    aww…finally they can launch… Allthough i have a feeling someone might try to waylay them… just waiting for them on the normal shipping lanes might prove to be quite a boring and fruitless endavour…

  3. Eduardo Says:

    Iยดve seen this before. An anonymous tip to the judiciary, not enough for them to do much, but bothersome to the person accused.
    Happened this year with a coleague from the university. They opened a adminitrative inquire (hope this is the right word) to investigate an anonymous tip that he was working for a private university, since he has an exclusivity contract with the federal university where we work.
    Solved in a few days, but gave a bit of trouble and harassment from the director.

  4. Retsof Says:

    This doesn’t have much to do with the current goings on, but I wonder how long it will be before they find Danika’s brother; and how he will react to suddenly having a “niece” that outweighs him by a few thousand tons.

  5. Melanie Says:

    Allan Belcher – hi and welcome to the blog! ๐Ÿ™‚ Good questions. Stay tuned. ๐Ÿ˜€

    Targetdrone – I’m saying nothing! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Eduardo – it’s true, isn’t it? No-one likes being searched by Customs and they need so little reason to do it! Awkward and annoying, but what can you do when they’re just doing their job?

    Retsof – I’m looking forward to that, too. ๐Ÿ˜€ Won’t be soon, but I haven’t forgotten about lost brother Davey.

  6. daymon34 Says:

    Could have been a fact finding mission by another corp, maybe even the one who tried to steal the Starwalker. But blocking them could have exposed the thief as well.