She rubbed her palms together, grinned as happily as a child, chortled, "Oh, wait 'til I tell you the rest," and started to relate her side of the lurker sweep.
From here on out, I'll tell T's story as I figured it out later; it'll get too confusing if I stick to only what she or I knew at the time.
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 of 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, hanging a little wide-angle pin-camera on her tunic pocket as she left. (I once asked, "What's that badge for?" only to be told, "Watching!" Ah, Security humor).
Of all the shirtsleeve-environment sections of the Lupine, the main cargo bays may be the most foreign to everyday experience, unless you work in a Zeppelin hangar. When the ship was new (long before the present "downtown" and "grand hotel" additions at the bow and upper side), the vast bays at Port and Starboard were hangar decks, where fighters were serviced and large drop-shuttles (replaced many years ago by the squirt-booster(s)strapped to cargo containers method) were stored; the former flight decks, outboard, were the nucleus of our present squirt-booster and ROV bays. Inboard of the five-story-high ex-hangars, the original holds are still in use for smaller items. The battle-ready (though never battle-tested) original configuration called for huge, pressure-rated hatches every 200 feet; these days, every other one is left open and "escape pod" safety refuges are spotted along the bulkheads and down the center line. Pressure suits are still required during cargo ops, when hatches at each end open to vacuum and the first two interior hatches are used as a cargo airlock.
These, least visited in-flight of any holds, were the areas T's teams had started on, using Stores & Cargo's IR-capable monitoring cameras to find the most likely containers. Their first hits were in the more-accessible sections and the process became more difficult as they got deeper and deeper in on each side. The big bays are almost exclusively used for containerized cargo which the shipper has paid a premium to have carried in a controlled environment; the containers are briefly exposed to zero pressure and temperature extremes when loaded aboard and when offloaded at the destination, but for many cargoes, it's an acceptable trade-off. Shippers can spend even more and never have their orchids, prize poodle, high-precision CNC machine or whatever at risk of exposure to heat, cold or vacuum but most don't. In the big holds, the containers are shoved and stacked by the same system Space Force used to move their small fighters, scouts and transports, a powered flatcar system flush with the deck and traveling cranes in each section. Take the fully-loaded deck of a big ocean-going container ship and set it in a huge tunnel, then add the hooks, haulers and other hazards of a cargo port and you'll begin to have an idea. It's a lot more cluttered than the Lupine's version of "deck cargo," racked in vacuum, and much harder to search with IR and chemical sniffers. When T's Security and Aux teams get even a faint hit, they check it out, sometimes having to stand back as Stores and Cargo unstacks and shifts containers to dig down for close examination.
"Hit" number four was looking to go that way but a particularly eager Aux took it on himself to walk the perimeter of the stack and found a container that appeared shut and locked but wasn't, exactly. This came a little after Ivan and company found the card game, so there were a few jokes about bustin' up another as they sorted themselves out and T, already close by from setting cameras on the still (and taking bets the would-be distiller would get word and never return) jogged over to get a first-hand look.
It was neatly done; the usual external latch appeared shut and had the opening not been left ever so slightly ajar there would have been no reason to suspect the container was anything out of the ordinary. There it was, a stenciled rectangular logo for an outfit none of them had ever heard of, "Star Azure." Except it was standing ever so slightly proud of the surface: a concealed hatch. "We got very quiet," T told me. And she sent one of her regulars to place a spare camera at the opening, with a thread-sized fiber-optic lens just barely protruding over the edge. Softly, softly.... Her hand held security monitor showed nothing much except more light than expected and vague shapes. Mike, with big displays in his borrowed command center, described close-stacked pallets sheathed in opaque plastic with barely room to squeeze past and a faint light shining from the far end. After ten minutes without so much as a flicker, T told her boss she was going in, gestured her team to gather and set them for action in whispers.
"John S., Alan--" (the tallest of that pair barely comes up to her shoulders but it's all muscle and plenty quick) "You're going in. There's no room for a dynamic entry and Ivan's the expert on that anyway. Take it slow and don't get fancy. The rest of us will be staged in several locations, ready to cover if you have to back out -- Matt and Abby, down there, the Auxiliaries right here. Clear?" Nods all around. "Do it." They all started to move and she caught the entry team's attention "Wait for my signal. And guys?" John and Alan looked at her expectantly. "Don't get killed."
Alan grinned; John S. just rolled his eyes and catfooted towards the visible end of the cargo container. Alan caught up and at T's gesture, eased open the hidden hatch. Jon drew his sidearm and stepped through. Alan unholstered and, after miming a silent three-count, followed.
In the temporary command center, Sheriff Mike was being reminded yet again that Stores & Cargo's proud boast of knowing the exact whereabouts of every item entrusted to their care was located was not the same as their knowing the identity of every item in the holds and external storage; the holds are just too vast and the riggers and remote-drone operators who make up the bulk of the S&C cargo-handling staff are focused on maximum stowage with minimum damage to persons and goods. To make matters worse, he was trying to follow T's crew in the monitors and to entirely confound that effort, he was being reminded by S&C's most colorful watch supervisor and one of his longtime Persons Of Interest, Cargomaster Turon, better known as the Turk.
My pal and occasional date Stephen the Navigator points out that the Turk is the Lupine's most dependable source of fresh flowers, that he is the ship's only arms dealer and cheapest ammunition source (except when he's in dutch with Mike and it's been confiscated again) and that his most visible sideline business, a collection of cheap (but sturdy enough to be shipped in vacuum) carnival rides he inevitably manages to get squirt-boostered to and from planetside at the lowest possible rates and has set up and operated by a few of his impressive and mysterious assortment of local contacts during our longer stops, brings joy to children throughout the Hidden Frontier. Not even Stephan can offer cogent comment on the Turk's laser hair removal or claimed camel-rental enterprise on Kansas II beyond, "It must be a needed service." The Turk is, to put it mildly, a go-getter, though going where and getting precisely what (let alone how much) can be a matter for heated debate and/or legal scrutiny. Claiming to hail from "the least known of the 'stans," his backstory is as obscure as most of his business dealings. All that said, he's a dazzlingly effective cargomaster; crews on his watch are among the fastest and safest at the high-risk transferring and stowing freight not just on Lupine but anywhere, though I suppose the highly-automated systems found among the Far Edged are nominally less risky. His honesty, under the strict scrutiny of the Starship Company, has been proven (in administrative hearings!) to be punctilious if a bit more concerned with the letter than the intent. In short, the Turk is...a headache. A highly-skilled headache. He was at his obfuscatively-helpful best with Mike most of the time and this night was no exception. His accent is mild but indescribable, so you're on your own.
"I am telling you, eff— Sir, we have no record of that container; the stack it is in... It should not be that height. I am offended by it. Offended!"
Mike expressed doubt with narrowed eyes and started to ask, "This isn't one of your--"
"Offended and insulted! And misjudged! Do I look like one who would pay inside rates?"
"Don't make me describe your looks, Cargomaster. Also, I don't care. How'd that container get where it is? Did it crawl in when we were between stars?"
The Turk contrived to look innocently saintly and failed, managing an expression between puppyish and hangdog. "It is unknown to me. Another shift's work, perhaps? Could it be nothing shady but a matter instead of....Security? Some, some thing for the Space Forces?"
Mike stopped for a minute at that. "I'd've been told."
The Turk said nothing.
"Probably, I'd've been told. Dammit, Turon, do you not check on the holds?"
"For pilferage? For shifting? For improperly-secured containers, for cranes and carriers unstowed? Yes. Of course, yes. For mystery containers that should not exist? Of how many thousands? This you think I should be doing? Hanh! Do I tell you how to, how to, securify?"
"Yes. Every time we have to have a little talk."
"Hah! I should not help you at all, ever. But, for the sake of long acquaintance.... I can see what we may have from the cameras. It will not be much, after 72 hours, only the proxies are kept, very low-rez, you understand?"
Mike gritted his teeth. He knows about as much about the practical side of security video as anyone aboard and the Turk was hardly unaware of it. The Lupine is just too blamed big to watch every bit of, let alone keep all the images; Moore's Law notwithstanding, whenever data storage capacity gets bigger and cheaper, Navigation and Control are the first to get it, followed by Environment and Physical Plant. Security gets the leftovers. Stores & Cargo is more concerned about immediate issues -- personnel safety, fire and chemical/biological hazards -- and their systems lean heavily to realtime coverage, archiving only for insurance purposes.
About that time, motion caught his attention: T's team taking up position, as seen through her camera. He saw Jon S. step through the opening and held up a hand to silence the Turk.
John S. had a better view but it wasn't much, just what the camera had shown: a narrow path between opaque-wrapped pallets of lumpy unknowns, meandering just enough to conceal the source of light at the far end. He catfooted down it carefully, feeling a slight shift as Alan stepped in and hoping there was nobody else to notice. He had to turn sideways to clear the heaped cargo on each side but the foot was clear. Closer to the far end of the container than he'd thought, he came to the bend and slowed even more. Ahead, bright light shined through another opening about the same size as the one he'd first entered. He gestured Alan to stop and cover, started to take a deep breath, thought better of it and stepped through, sidearm held close, attention wide for threats.
-- Into a narrow space with -- counters? -- on each side. No, not counters, open-sided crates, counter-height, holding an array of shiny cylinders and at the far end of the aisle they created, a man sat, quietly, watching, with a mildly amused, mildly worried expression. "Well," he said in his softly musical, German-sounding Lyndon backcountry accent, "You got Katrina and now you're here. What next?" It was Villem. George Welle's assistant.
(TO BE CONTINUED)