Condor Rising 4

Biff tried to stay out of the way as much as possible while onboard the Salamander. But the old freighter was devoted primarily to cargo, some of it not even stored in airtight spaces, strapped down in areas only accessible by drones, bots, or people wearing spacesuits. The living quarters devoted to crew, and in his case passenger space, felt very small indeed.

Out of boredom one day he paced off everything, including the bridge and the Captain’s cabin, which was open at the time while Captain Estes paid a visit to the head. By Biff’s rough estimate, the ship offered less than 300 square meters of living space, or about 3,200 square feet. This was for 15 people, including him.

Needless to say, Biff thought, there was little room for privacy.

The crew made do, and Biff tried to stay out of everybody’s way. Unfortunately, entertainment options were limited too. They were cut off from the quantum-computing matrix, and Biff suffered long bouts of boredom. Out of desperation he turned to primitive books. The ship had a library of well-worn paperbacks reserved just for that purpose.

He kept his profession under wraps from the smugglers. They did not need to know he was a cop. He told Captain Estes he worked in municipal government, which was true. Estes nodded absently. He did not care. He wanted payment for passage to Lute up front in the form of credit tokens, though, which Biff provided.

Biff befriended one of the pilots, a young swarthy man by the name of Rico. He asked Rico how the Salamander, currently flagged as a League ship, could make it over to Lute without permission from either system.

Rico showed him how he and Sonny, the other pilot, plotted courses using the ship’s computer rather than relying on StarCen to port them.

Biff said, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll . . . I don’t know . . . accidentally teleport inside a sun or something?”

“Nah. StarCen and PLAIR have most of the known galaxy mapped out already. We just use existing coordinates that have been shown to be good over time. It’s a hassle plotting out 3,600 points over the course of every hour, and we’re slower at it than the big AI systems. But, it’s possible. And if you want to wander away from the prescribed areas, it’s the only way to do it.”

“But doesn’t StarCen say anything about it? I mean, you’re basically an untethered ship outside her control. That doesn’t raise any red flags?”

Rico shrugged. “We’re small fry businessmen, as far as she’s concerned. With the war going on and everything else, nobody pays us no mind.”

“Well, as long as we don’t show up in the same spot on your coordinates as another ship does at the same time, I guess we’ll be alright.”

“In the vastness of space, the odds of that happening are a million to one. Or greater. Captain Estes has been out here for years doing much the same thing, sneaking in undocumented cargo and people. He’s never had no problem.”

Captain Estes spent most of his time locked up in his cabin, Biff observed, coming out only for bathroom breaks and bites to eat. One day when his door was open, Biff spied an open case of liquor from Italia. The Captain was spending hours alone drinking, Biff realized, then sleeping it off. Meanwhile, he let the crew do what they wanted. And that lack of oversight, Biff deduced, was how the trouble started.

Melanie was the main instigator. Biff found out she was the newest crewmember, and she still seemed to be trying to fit in. Two days out from Petra Roe she cut off the bottom half of her t-shirt, exposing her midriff for the rest of the trip. Then she began flirting up the pilots, Rico and Sonny.

Rico was dazzled by the attractive young woman, and tried to spend every waking moment near her, which was not hard to do considering the limited space available.

Sonny, a man about the same size as Biff but terribly out of shape and quite overweight, appreciated the feminine attention even more. Within hours of Melanie’s midriff baring, he grew increasingly possessive of her.

When Melanie turned her attention to Rico after dinner one night and kissed him on the cheek, Sonny slugged him in a fit of rage. Rico got off the floor ready to kill. Everyone had to jump in and hold them both back.

Melanie laughed and seemed rather happy to be in the middle of it all. When everything calmed down she led Sonny by the hand to a storage closet. The closet was not sound proof, and everyone on the ship could hear what was going on behind the door.

Rico grew bitter and disillusioned. Sonny, on the other hand, walked around the next few days with a big smile on his face. Their arguments escalated. The crew finally insisted the pilots no longer eat in the mess area together. Then Melanie started hitting on other men in the crew, and Sonny’s smile disappeared.

Biff turned her down flat, saying he was married. He refused to spend any time alone with her, not that there were many opportunities. That’s one good thing about the lack of privacy, he thought.

By the time Salamander entered orbit around Lute, practically everyone onboard was at each other’s throats. Captain Estes, who spent most of the voyage drunk and holed up in his cabin, found over half his crew resigning when the transport headed down to the surface.

He said, “What happened?” with a genuinely confused look on his face. But nobody wanted to talk about it.

The transport landed on top of the Administration Building in Port Ryan, and Estes stepped off first to discuss his cargo with Customs. Others onboard left the area as quickly as possible. Biff watched Melanie heading for the elevator with her travel bag. She went without saying goodbye to either Sonny or Rico, who both watched her go with forlorn expressions of hope on their faces.

Off to one side, standing apart from the officials, Biff noted a group of people dressed all in black. One fellow in a trench coat looked to be the leader. He carried himself well, Biff thought. Here is someone who commanded respect and wore authority like a cloak wrapped around him.

Next to him stood an older woman chewing on a cigar. That surprised Biff, since tobacco products were illegal almost everywhere. Cigarettes, cigars, and pipes were rarely seen anymore, except in old movies.

Beside her stood two more women, one slightly taller who seemed oddly familiar.

He approached the group, hesitantly. The woman tugged absently at her earlobe, and suddenly he knew . . .

“Andi?”

She turned to look and her eyes grew wide.

She said, “Biff? What are you doing here?”

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