Sure, a secret agent. It could not possibly fail to be any less glamorous than my Real Career Between The Stars (or whatever it is I do around here), right?
Riiiight. "Earlybird" puts me on duty as the overnighters are doing lunch, call it 0430 if you like. I didn't, but I had to anyway. I'd had trouble getting the wave out of my bangs, ends sticking out caterwompus despite vanity’s dab of styling gel, and I'd had to resort to hair spray. (There are lots of ways to zero-G-proof your hair, clips and braids and ponytails, but bangs take stickum). That's probably trivial where you live but it gums up the filters in a sealed system; you can cook, use hair-spray and so on (no volatile spray-paint!), but Environment & Physical Plant monitors the pressure drop across the air-return filters and if yours reaches the limit too early compared to the standard, you buy the replacement and they're not cheap.
Still, groomed (-ish), rested (more or less) and fed (coffee and a roll counts, right?), I stumbled my way down the slidewalks to Engineering at only a little past the appointed hours. Drew was waiting at the hatch. "Hi there! I'm headed for lunch — Conan should be back any minute," and he was off. Well, that's Drew, utterly reliable, unflappable and keenly aware of the exact minimum requirements for any task. He's also our best source for reports on Conan the Objectivist's temper-driven flights of verbal fancy (e.g, "Does the Chief expect me to excrete obsolete germanium transistors?"), which makes him an invaluable asset to his peers.
Looked at the "incoming" shelf and there wasn't anything critical waiting; picked up a terminal from the rack by the hatch to the Chief's office cubby, plopped it down on an open workbench (hooray for wireless!) and logged on. Nothing new in TASKER. E-mail, let's see, free tix to some play on our next stop (we're still inbound to Frothup, an ex-Far Edge settlement as you can tell from the name), free passes to the zoo likewise, lucky winners get round-trip travel and overnight accommodations.... Yah, yah, I never win those, I just hitch with a squirt-booster pilot; there's usually room, especially on the off shifts. Something from Mike, an FYI: "We're sweeping cargo for freeloaders starting 0100. Will let you know if anything/anyone we find clears Welles..." Oh, that'll be being effing big fun -- remotely-operated vehicles scanning the exposed cargo containers for unaccounted heat/chemical signatures while mixed teams of Stores & Cargo and Security types go through the Port and Starboard conditioned-space holds. H'mm, it's just about certain I know someone beside Sheriff Mike who's on that....
Why wonder? Dug out my celphone and scrolled through the contacts list 'til T's name came up. Ring. Ring. "'El-o?" Wide awake, when she's usually on straight-up first shift.
"T, it's Bobbi--"
"So, you're on the lurker sweep and Mikey's right next to you, then?"
H'mm. I'd call Ivan but odds are good he's either in the same room, busy or sleeping. I don't know him all that well but enough to know he's not quite as patient with noseyparkers as T, and she's not very. Besides, Mike will notice, if he hasn't already. Too, while T will hang back, watching her teams on vid until something breaks or she's decided it's about to, while Ivan's usually in the thick of things from the git-go. Different cops, different approaches -- also, Ivan never had a fool of a remote-drone op slam into him on the hull, smash both shins and breach his suit, hitting hard enough to knock out the suit's radio and keep on going, while T, well, it must have been a hellish hand-over-hand back to the nearest airlock where they found her passed out after she'd hit the "Pressure" and "Emergency Call" buttons. It was how she'd got the promotion to shift supervisor -- not for being tough and most certainly not for getting badly injured on the job, but by successfully and professionally running, from her hospital bed, the investigation that caught the perp.
T's quick to point out it wasn't that much of a prize; Mike's got four (4!) patrollers on his watch, T and Ivan make do with all of three each and what they deal with outside routine cargo security work is mostly foot patrol in the "public" spaces plus the usual loud arguments, drunks, fights and the occasional pilfering or vandalism that any large ship or small town gets. When they need more help, there's the Auxiliary Security Force ("Security Oxen" or even just "The Oxes" if they're not in the room), mostly Stores & Cargo and Environment & Physical Plant types and a few of the more-ambitious riggers, some of who have, at differing times, more free time than the Starship Company figures is good for them. For a lurker sweep, the teams are made up of one Security fulltimer and one or two Auxes and if more than a half-dozen teams are needed, the best of the Auxes get brevetted.
My shift was uneventful other than a spate of message from a planet-side data-comms outfit complaining about link quality; I switched to one of the backups before grabbing an RF meter and optical TDR and backtracking from the receiver all the way to the point where the coax entered the hull. Just my luck, four hours later I'd proven the signal was crummy all the way back to vacuum; I logged on to schedule riggers to check the antenna and found a half-dozen chiding queries about it, the last an abashed, "Link good now, er, just realized you're a starship and light-_hours_ out!" New on the job, are we? Made it back to the shop just in time to put my toys away and go off-shift. Time to go be a spy!
...Some excitement that was: stroll "downtown" and mill around in the park for an hour. The Great man never showed. A sullen-looking middle-aged man with the musically Germanic accent of the Linden backcountry accompanied by a thirtyish, pudgy blonde with a motherly smile eventually announced to the crowd that "Mr. Vell-es" was feeling a little poorly and would not be speaking that afternoon.
The crowd was an assorted bunch, from kids just barely walking through elderly folks. Well over half Lyndoners and most of them I'd guess at citydwellers, but the remainder were from all over, judging by accents and attire. Even a couple of sure-nuff Russians, I don't know from Earth or one of the string of planets the old U.S.S.R. had established along their section of the Hidden Frontier. None of them struck me as particularly blissed-out or cult-y and their reaction to Welles' absence was no more than ordinary concern. The guy who'd shared the news -- "Vill," would you not just know -- didn't seem to have any particular power over them. I spoke with a few people who said hi and made my way home. Stopped off at "Gumbo A-Go-Go" for takeout (the Hidden Frontier, well above any storm surge, got its share of Katrina refugees, handpicked by recruiters from Starship Company, our competitors and reps from organizations on a couple of planets. We got Georges, who made his way from E&PP Food Services chef to self-employed in record time, to the very great benefit of those of us aboard Lupine! Sure wish I knew where he gets that bread) and slidewalked home, looking forward to a nice dinner, a sound sleep and a day off. --Not that the Fates'd let the last item happen!
But you already know that tale of woe.
Not my idea of fun but there are worse ways to spend half of your day off -- I didn't even have to leave my cabin, though I'll admit to a little trepidation to Dr. Schmid roaming around Engineering with a tweaker and the access codes. He's a fine officer and a good man but it has been awhile since he slung solder, which he mostly didn't, having been a Navs wonk before The Starship Company decided he was officer material. "Should you ought to be doing that, Sir?" is not anything you can delicately ask and the fact is he's right nine times in ten dealing with hands-on tech, despite a terrifyingly theoretical approach. But we get one day off for every five on -- maybe it sounds unfair to you but what would I do with the extra day, mow the lawn? Paint the house? Climb Everest? -- and so I decided to make the best of the half-day I could grab. And then ended up back on the phone later that evening.
Found a note from T in my personal online inbox, her usual terse e-mail style: "A busy night's sweep, call for info." Sent a half-hour ago, her second-shift morning. So I rang her up.
While I'd been chasing signals and chasing my tail in the park, Mike's Security crew had indeed been busy. He'd put T's group inside the hull and had Ivan's lot plus the best three cargo drone remote ops checking the unpressurized cargo (T still bears a bit of a grudge). Initial "outside" scan showed a handful of hotter-than expected containers, two Starboard and one Port with mild chemical signatures of the sort that usually indicate habitation.
It takes a closer look to ID the exact container and the most likely-looking choice was put third when a cross-check with the manifest turned up fertilized eggs as the contents. The rates are considerably less for what S&C likes to call "deck cargo," so I guess it makes sense. The next suspect looked even more that way when no listing could be found of it and Ivan and a couple of helpers were moving in for a closer look when the cargo chief on duty called them off: Space Force, USSF military cargo, Hands Off. Soldiers In a Can? I asked but T refused to speculate. And thus on to the next one, all the way across the width of the ship and forward, so our stalwarts called for a remote drone carrying a "personnel pod," little more than an armored framework with benches and tie-downs and rode most of the way across.
You can't exactly be stealthy in a pressure suit but Ivan comes as close as anyone can, despite being about 1.5 men high and wide. His pair of Auxes, guys he's worked with for several years, are nearly as good. They worked their way among the containers towards the heat source, scanned the barcode and found the contents listed as "furniture, office, assorted; pressure-tight." With a double hatch, no less, perhaps for fussy Customs inspectors: a basic airlock, big enough for one suited individual who doesn't suffer from claustrophobia. Leaning his helmet carefully on the wall, Ivan could hear sounds, possibly voices, the occasional scrape or thump. And as T put it, "even a redhead knows that's not what office furniture sounds like." Time to see what's inside!
Ivan went first, his Auxes stacked up beside the outer hatch ready to follow or react to his quick exit -- or whatever it took. There's no way to cycle an airlock quietly, even an unpowered one; the dogs and bolts thud and clank, air hisses through the valves and it is not a sudden or subtle process. By the time pressure in the lock was close enough to the pressure in the cargo container to free the inner hatch, whoever was in there was well-warned.
...Not that any warning would have been enough to clear out the cigar smoke, though you'd've thought between three riggers and four S&C crewfolk, at least one would've swept the cards out of sight: In full vacuum gear, Security insignia big and bright, Ivan had just crashed a poker game.
Playing cards for money is hardly against company policy; there's a nice "game room" up in passenger territory (middle-sized casino), open to anyone who can comply with the dress code, that turns a healthy profit, undeterred by even our most straitlaced port of call (cough, Kansas II, cough). There is no end of polls and lotteries, card games, dice and for all I know, pitch-penny and liar's poker (look it up). Nor is there a blanket ban on smoking; there are two designated smoking compartments for crew and subcontractors and a posh smoking parlor off the aforementioned casino for the paying customers. Though the rates are ruinous and your neighbors are liable to complain if they get a hint of it, you can even have your own quarters fitted out for smoking. (Smoking does do bad things to your mandatory insurance premiums, but hey, nothing's free). Indeed, both S&C and the rigging department tend to have long stretches of largely-idle time and while official policy encourages keeping busy (hence the Security Auxiliaries and our mostly on-call Fire/Pressure, etc. department), supervisors turn a blind eye to innocent amusements.
However, opening up sealed cargo containers and burning cheap stogies therein, that is not so innocent and it's certainly against Starship Company regs. The fire risk and crummy air quality only made it worse; Ivan, the mildest of men most times, is nevertheless of "One riot, one Ranger" size and when riled up, it is a rare man indeed who can stand up to him. He barked, "Hold it! Hands up!" as he kicked the cheap hatch shut behind him and the boys just about swallowed their cigars in the eagerness to comply. His Auxes, listening over his open mic, piled into the lock together and cycled it as quickly as they dared but by the time they were in, Ivan had the miscreants lined up, looking sheepish and sounding off.
Good gossip and a good catch -- shippers pay us, trust us, darn it, to take proper care of their goods -- but hardly cause for murder and I said as much to T.
"Oh, wait 'til I tell you the rest," she said, and started to relate her side of the lurker sweep.
Her team's first hit turned out to be a still. (It never fails. The _Lupine_ has no shortage of places to buy all grades of alcohol and yet just like every starship of sufficient size and most of the sublight haulers, too, there is always some crewman who's just got to build a still). They noted it for surveillance and moved on. Another of her teams carefully worked its way up on...a trysting couple. On the clock. But at least they were married, though not to one another. Handed them over to their supervisor; The Starship Company doesn't much care who you sleep with but frowns on so doing on company time. Other possibilities turned out to be false alarms, though one did give Stores & Cargo advance notice on a small chemical leak. It was after that that things started to get interesting and T left the S&C office Mike had borrowed to join her lead team.
(TO BE CONTINUED)