Monday, November 16, 2015

The Recognition Run - Chapter 5

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Two officers arrive at Drake’s docking bay looking for Jeanine.


Across from me, Jeanine’s eyes widened in surprise and fear. Then her eyes began darting around the small room as if searching for something—a hiding place, I assumed.

“You’re mistaken, officers,” I replied, settling into the slightly-bored tone of voice I always use with government officials. “I’m the only one on the ship.”

Most freight haulers in the galaxy fall into exactly the same tone when they find themselves dealing with bureaucrats. It’s what bureaucrats expect to hear, too, so it tends to put them at ease. That’s especially useful on those occasions when I actually do have something to hide—like now.

The security officer said, “So you haven’t had a woman with you tonight?”

“I didn’t say that,” I replied, trying to inject a little puzzlement into my voice. “I had a very attractive woman in here not that long ago.”

“Describe her,” the security officer demanded.

Assuming they had access to security vids, I gave a superficially accurate description of Jeanine, putting emphasis on her long legs, barely-covered butt, and pushed-up breasts. The officers exchanged a glance as I wrapped up the description, both giving a fractional nod.

“And why did this young woman leave?” the security officer asked.

“I assume her, ah, business manager had another customer lined up.”

“You’re saying the woman is a prostitute?”

“Yeah, and a good one.” Jeanine’s eyes narrowed in what I hoped was amusement at that, but I couldn’t risk looking directly at her to make sure. “I paid her, she relieved my…tensions…most admirably, and then she left.”

A third voice spoke from off screen. It was pitched too low for me to understand the words, but there was no doubt the owner of that voice was issuing orders to the officers. Jeanine heard the voice, too, and she went very still and deathly pale at the sound of it.

The customs officer spoke next. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to search your ship, Captain Haral.”

“Oh, hell, did you guys outlaw prostitution since I was here last?”

“No, Captain Haral, we did not,” the security officer said. “But we still must search your ship.”

“Have you got a warrant?” I asked, aiming for confused belligerence in my voice. “I don’t have to let you in unless you have a legal warrant.”

A hand came in from offscreen holding a ducal badge. The third voice, now perfectly clear, said, “Yes, Captain Haral, you do have to let us in. Now stop wasting my time and do as you’re told.”

There was only one possible answer to such a demand and I gave it. “Of course, sir. I’ll be right out.”

The vid winked out and I tossed the screen on the table in disgust. Jeanine spoke for the first time since the comm buzzed. In a trembling voice, she said, “You can’t give me to them. That man will kill me.”

“Not if I can help it,” I growled, standing. “Come on, we don’t have much time.”

I led Jeanine into my sleeping cabin. Dropping to one knee, I ran my hand over the deck beneath my desk. I found a minor depression most people wouldn’t even notice, fitted my thumb into it, and then lined the rest of my fingers up next to my thumb. Sensors hidden in the deck read the prints from all five fingers. A soft whoosh sounded from the middle of the room as one of the deck plates slid aside, revealing a small compartment.

“It’ll be a tight fit and I really hope you don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but you’ll be safe in here,” I said, guiding Jeanine toward the compartment.

She eyed the hole with understandable trepidation. “What if they have hand scanners?”

“The compartment is shielded. They shouldn’t find this unless they get really serious and start tearing up deck plates.” I helped her down into the compartment and pointed to a recessed button. “If something happens to me, this button will open the deck plate.”

Nodding and shivering, Jeanine sank into the compartment. She brought her knees up under her chin, gave me one last look, and said, “Close it.”

Seconds later, I dashed out of the Star and across the docking bay to the door. I took just a second to compose myself, then keyed the door open. A team of customs inspectors streamed past me, led by the security officer. Then the customs officer entered, followed by a powerfully built man who simply exuded power and competence. He could be none other than the owner of the third voice.

The customs officer said, “Captain Haral, may I present Sir Phillip of Reimund, Knight of the Realm and Royal Enforcer of His Majesty’s Law.”

My heels snapped together with an audible click and I bowed deeply to the knight. “It is an honor, Sir Phillip.”

“Rise,” Sir Phillip said. “I must say you’re rather well-mannered for a tramp freighter captain. Did you serve in your lord’s military?”

“I did not have that honor, sir,” I replied. “Instead, I had parents who were—and still are—sticklers for proper manners.”

“When next you see your parents, convey my approval of their parenting.” The knight said, striding past me and toward the Star. “Commoners who truly understand their place in the galaxy are far too rare.”

Fixing a smile on my face, I trailed after Sir Phillip. “They will be honored, sir, as am I in their stead.”

The three of us entered the Star. Shock stopped me just inside the hatch. One member of the customs team was running a hand scanner meticulously over every square centimeter of the deck while a second did the same with the bulkheads. I’d sort of expected something like that, but the rest of the team was methodically destroying everything in the ship. Three of my cushions had already been slashed open and the woman responsible was about to slice open a fourth. A man dumped drawers from my desk, smashed the drawers, and then sifted through the pieces. The rest of the team was out of sight, but from the sounds echoing through my ship, they weren’t treating my possessions with any more care than these two.

Surging toward the woman with the cushions, I yelled, “What are you doing? There’s no way a woman could hide inside a cushion!”

Sir Phillip’s left hand caught my arm in a vise-like grip. “They act under my orders, Captain Haral.”

Since I don’t have a death wish I didn’t struggle against the knight’s grip. Bitterness evident in my tone, I asked, “When you don’t find anything, Sir Phillip, May I assume the crown will reimburse me for these damages?”

“Of course, Captain Haral.” Sir Phillip might have been discussing the weather for all the feeling his voice held. “Simply present an itemized list to the proper agency on Xapreathea. In person.”

“In other words, all I have to do is fly one hundred light years to the capital planet of the star kingdom-”

“One hundred and two light years, to be precise, Captain,” Sir Phillip said.

“Okay. And once there, present an itemized list to the proper agency. I don’t suppose you could tell me the name of this agency?”

“Alas, Captain, I do not bother with such details. Oh, and you must remain available to answer any questions the agency may have. I’m told it only takes a few weeks.”

“Of course…” I turned and looked the knight in the eyes. “If I may be so bold, Sir Phillip, why didn’t you simply say ‘no’ in response to my question?”

The man barked a hearty laugh. To my surprise, the humor reached the knight’s eyes. “Well said, Captain. Your directness is refreshing for a man who spends far too much time among courtiers and politicians.” Then the humor drained from Sir Phillip’s eyes. “Do not be so bold again.”

I nodded and returned to watching the destruction of my ship’s interior. An hour and a half later, the team gathered before the knight and the security officer said, “There’s no sign of the woman, Sir Phillip. Scans are negative and we found no evidence of wrong-doing against Captain Haral. However, the scans were also negative for indications of sexual intercourse in Captain Haral’s bed.”

The knight turned to me, his face impassive. “Would you explain that, Captain?”

“We began with dinner—the remains of which you can see scattered all over the floor. As I told the officers, I’ve been in space for a long time and I decided I couldn’t wait until we finished eating.” I looked down, feigning embarrassment. “She bent over the table and, well…you know.”

“Yes,” the knight replied dryly. “It appears the inspectors should scan you, now.”

I shrugged, “They won’t find anything. Any spacer with any intelligence knows you thoroughly clean yourself after spending time with a prostitute. Disease, you know.”

Since this had the advantage of being the absolute truth and was one of the first things taught to new spacers, I was on solid ground here. The knight simply raised an eyebrow. “That’s a lot to pack into one hour, Captain Haral.”

“I spent a month alone in space,” I said. “It doesn’t take very long to release that much pent-up tension, Sir Phillip.”

The knight stared at me for a few seconds as the inspection team struggled to keep from laughing at my response. Without another word to me, the knight turned and left my ship. The inspectors and two officers trailed after him.

Before he turned away, the security officer said, “Don’t leave the planet, Captain Haral. Sir Phillip may have more questions for you.”

I looked at the ruined interior of the Rising Star. Who was Jeanine and what had she dragged me into?

How will Jeanine answer Drake’s questions? Find out in Chapter 6, coming Wednesday.