2946-06-19 - Takes from the Inbox: Smugglers in Second Class

This story came from a largely retired spacer who did not provide a name, but who we'll call Faye. Faye and her daughter Junia (also a false name) had, if their submission is to be believed, quite an eventful trip out to the Frontier. Given the references to the economic downturn on Planet, where our studio is based, it probably refers to events which are about three years old. The story is unverifiable, but intriguing.  

Rumors of criminal activity and worse aboard the liners to and from the Frontier have abounded for years – this isn't even the first story to allege such things which Cosmic Backgrounds has published this year. Feedback Loop brought the audience a video of highly suspicious behavior aboard one such liner in February.

Faye's story - at least, the part of it she felt comfortable sharing - is fairly lengthy, but I've distilled the highlights into three main sections, which will each get their own Tales from the Inbox entry. Look for the next installment, Iridescent Intercession, to appear on the 21st.

“Mom, I’m serious.” Junia's tone became strained. 

“You’re fifteen T-years old, Junia.” Faye tried not to sound like she was scolding her daughter, and was not entirely sure she succeeded. Every day, she forced herself to remember that for Junia, who’d never known any world but Planet at Centauri, months confined to the spartan passenger liner were a new and unwelcome experience. Her owns service as a spacer tech on long-haul Navy logistics haulers which ferried supplies to the outposts on the Hegemony border had more than prepared Faye for the relatively minor discomforts of a second-class passenger’s berth. “There are no monsters under your bunk or anywhere else in your cabin.” 

“I heard what I heard, Mom. He was talking to someone… talking about a shipment. What sort of cargo needs someone to keep it quiet, anyway?” 

“A shipment? The monster was talking about cargo?” Faye frowned, now legitimately confused. 

“You never listen, do you?” Junia tossed her head back and clapped her hands dramatically to her face. “Not a monster. A mobster, like in those old vid-shows you like so much. He talks at night, and I can’t sleep. He’s got a gun, he said so.” 

“A mobster.” Faye paused to try to make sense out what Junia meant by the archaic term. Clearly, she was comparing what she heard – or thought she heard – to the old 24th century crime dramas which Faye had been watching to pass the idle time on the long journey to Maribel. There were no mobsters anymore in the sense the term was used in that context – it was even probable that nobody had used the term for organized crime when the dramas were produced. “Under your bunk. On a passenger liner.” 

“Yeah.” Junia, her voice incredulous, replied, standing up, her breakfast barely touched. “Forget it. I hate this ship. I’m going to the gaming lounge.” 

Faye made no move to stop Junia. The liner was safe enough; the computer authorization system and the crew wouldn’t let a passenger go anywhere even remotely dangerous. Faye didn’t like the look of some of their fellow passengers, but most were, like Faye and Junia, permanently emigrating to the Frontier, chasing rumors of work, even for those with only marginal skills, on newly settled worlds. There were even a few other teenagers, dragged along with their parents like Junia herself – but it had been clear very early in the voyage that Junia would have nothing to do with them. She seemed to think that, by being miserable, she could make Faye book a ticket back to Planet at Centauri as soon as the liner arrived at Maribel. The fifteen-year-old was, by a combination of her own and her mother’s efforts, largely alone on the whole ship – and the voyage was less than half over. 

With a heavy sigh, Faye absently stirred her own breakfast for another minute before gathering up her own tray and the one Junia had left behind. After depositing them in the recycler receptacle, she left the passenger mess hall, still thinking about her daughter’s claims. Junia had always been imaginative, like Faye herself, but this was something new. Even for a teen who went through phases at an unbelievable pace, her claims were too bizarre and specific to simply ignore as a play for attention. 

Abandoning her plans to spend the morning in the ship’s full-gee gym (which was, despite its name, barely providing point-eight gee), Faye decided to check out Junia’s cabin before determining how to proceed. There were plenty of reasonable things which, blown out of proportion by an overactive imagination, could result in what Junia was describing. If it was pure fantasy – and that still seemed the likeliest explanation – Faye would be unable to avoid taking the sorts of unpleasant parental measures which she had always sought to avoid. 

Passing only a few dozen late-risers heading in the opposite direction in the corridors and lifts of the massive liner, Faye soon returned to the deck which housed their cabins. Since she had been forced to choose between having two adjacent bunks in economy-class or having two separated cabins in second-class, Junia’s berth was not next to her own – it was at the end of the corridor, a thirty-meter walkpast her own identical, spartan compartment. When they had boarded, Faye had at first harbored hope, unfounded though it was, that this bit of privacy and independence would help make the voyage pass more easily for her daughter. 

Because Faye had booked Junia’s ticket, the teenager’s cabin opened as easily before her as her own. Faye had avoided intruding on her daughter’s privacy as much as possible, and now found herself dismayed at the disarray within. Discarded clothing and the wrappers of sugary snacks lay scattered over the floor, and the bunk was neither made nor folded up into the wall. Junia’s travel bag lay underneath the tiny desk, clothing and personal objects spilling out of its open side. 

Faye picked her way across the floor to the bunk and, feeling silly for even doing it, folded the shelf-like sleeping arrangement into its wall recess. As she expected, the deck below it was as much a mess as in the middle of the cabin, but there was nothing there. Faye had half-expected to find a forgotten vid-player slate that might explain the voices Junia described, but the only device of that sort in Junia’s cabin was perched precariously on the edge of the desk to put it in range of the charging hub. 

Letting the bunk drop back into its deployed position, Faye sat down, dropping her head into her hands. She wasn’t sure if Junia was having auditory hallucinations, or simply making a play for attention, but either option was a sign of trouble. She wondered if it was time to have one of the ship’s overworked med-techs examine the teen – perhaps taking the complaint seriously would help Junia understand that her mother was doing her best. More likely though, Junia would find a way to be wounded by that, too. 

As Faye weighed a set of equally bad options, she heard a dry cough. At first, she thought it was coming from an adjacent cabin, but she remembered that second-class was soundproofed – someone would have to scream at the top of their lungs to be heard in the next cabin, and then only faintly. Where, then, did the cough come from? 

Faye flipped the bunk back up once again and pushed all the clutter into the middle of the floor. Behind a balled-up blouse, Faye found a tiny vent, one of many such openings throughout the ship. Every compartment, serviced by the ship’s atmospherics system, had such ductwork, and the five-centimeter port under the bunk was certainly not big enough to admit an intruder, mobster or otherwise. The system was also supposed to include sound baffles to prevent it from carrying voices between cabins, but like the “full-gee” status of the gym, perhaps this detail had also not been implemented correctly on a budget mass-transit liner. 

“Receiving.” A gruff man’s voice muttered, and Faye could tell it was coming from the vent. “Yah, nothing to report. Tomorrow, Gus, we’re switchin’ places, ya hear?” The man paused, as if listening for a response. “Breakfast sounds good. Do they have eggs?” 

Faye blinked slowly, trying to figure out what was going on. The voice’s odd accent – definitely not one which she’d ever heard on Planet at Centauri – did sound remarkably like the accents used in her treasured crime dramas. Junia wasn’t hallucinating or lying; there actually was a voice under her bed, and in radio contact with someone else aboard. He might be in an adjacent cabin with faulty sound baffles in the atmospherics system, but Faye doubted that, as it would probably mean more people than Junia could hear his voice. Perhaps instead there was a maintenance space behind the wall, and the same atmospherics line which fed Junia’s cabin from the system trunk also carried air to this space. Faye knew enough from her own days as a spacer to guess at the elaborate measures used to keep such a stowaway hidden from the crew. He certainly could never leave his hideout without setting off alarms. 

Even as she wondered to what end the man was voluntarily entombed, he spoke again, replying to his collaborator, though Faye didn’t hear the other man’s voice. “This scheme is the worst gig we’ve ever had.” The grumbling sounded trite, as if this was a conversation they’d had many times before. “Next time, we ship things that don’t need this much babying, so we can both relax.” 

Faye remembered Junia’s observation about a shipment. The man and his accomplice were smugglers, secreting themselves aboard an already overpopulated interstellar liner to move contraband. What would they do if they found out Junia could hear their activity all night? Dropping the bunk with a clang, Faye hurriedly grabbed Junia’s data-slate, overrode its user-lock with her parental code, and jotted down every word she’d just heard. It would not do to forget any details when she went to inform the liner’s crew. 

After making her notes, Faye tucked the slate under her arm and hurried to the door, which opened to let her out.  

Before she could step outside, a large man stepped into her way, clapping a hand over her mouth and pushing her back into Junia’s cabin. 

“Now, now, Miss.” The man grinned unkindly as the door shut behind him. His accent was different than that of the man in the vents; it was more cultured, and smooth where his partner’s was gruff. “We can’t have that, can we?”