“You’re basically spitting in my face, Officer Frost,” said Diamond, scowling into her mobi. “And the rest of the team’s. Do you have any idea what we went through to seize that WiDoW in the first place, and now you want us to just hand it all back? Hell, Davis lost an eye!”
Having worked with Diamond on several other Crusader Security contracts, Kayla knew that this was the merc’s way of haggling, but she didn’t have the patience for their normal back and forth. Time was ticking. The jackers had given them a deadline of six hours and every second wasted put the hostages in more danger.
“If you’re hoping to get more creds to ease your hardship, you’re climbing up the wrong ladder,” said Kayla. Since her bosses had ordered her to give in to the shipjacker’s demands, she wasn’t exactly authorized to hire a crew of mercenaries. Best she could offer was hazard transport. “The pay is what it is, but I swear, if you help me get these people off that starliner alive, I’ll make sure you and yours get taken care of ten-fold. Also, I know for a fact the recovery team found Davis’ ocular implant and returned it to her.”
Having been caught out, Diamond couldn’t help but grin, showing off her eponymous sparkling teeth. Ever since she started working for Crusader, Kayla wondered why all the decent contractors she’d found in Stanton had an excess of personality. Then again, the fly-the-course crowd she knew back in Terra would never have agreed to run an op like this.
“Alright, easy Frosty. We’ll do it,” said Diamond.
“Good. Head to the security landing bay ASAP and get the WiDoW loaded up.”
“Already on our way,” said Diamond, “though, to be square with you, this whole operation sounds hinky as hell. Handing over a shipload of drugs to a bunch of jackers isn’t the smartest negotiation tactic I’ve ever heard.”
“Agreed,” said Kayla. “But you’re gonna make sure the bastards don’t get to keep a lick of it.”
“Like the sound of that,” said Diamond. “What’s the plan then? Hide Davis in one of the crates to pop ’em when they take a little lookie-loo? Poison the lot of it and hope the try a sample? Wire the WiDoW with a couple thousand grams of good old-fashioned CB-T?”
“They’ll be expecting us to tamper with the shipment. No way the crates get on board without the jackers running a deep scan.”
Diamond nodded, understanding. “Yeah, they spot anything, they’ll cut and run, and then the hostages are good as dead. I’ll limit the team to non-lethal weapons only. That should help us not trigger any suspicion on approach, but hell if I know how we get inside without anybody noticing.”
A damn good question.
“I’m working on it,” said Kayla.
Kayla weaved her way through the midday crowds that clogged Orison’s main promenade. The weather was pristine and the smiling faces of people enjoying it felt like a betrayal. With the stress and pressure she was under, the weather could at least have the decency to be overcast.
As she approached the starport’s entrance, she bypassed the long line that snaked outside and beelined straight for the maintenance area. Normally, if she was doing official business at the port she would coordinate with the Crusader Transit Authority, but this time she couldn’t risk anyone inquiring too deeply about her purpose there. If word got up to management about what she was doing, then, well … those hostage’s lives would be in the hands of Crusader’s PR exec, Harris. Not a very promising position.
The massive maintenance bay held several starliners in different states of repair. She checked her casefile to make sure she had the correct registration before heading towards the one bearing Meridian Transit livery.
“Kelly Burgess?” Kayla asked a passing worker wearing burgundy Meridian coveralls. Without stopping, they pointed her towards an open hatch on the Genesis’ lower hull, where a mess of wires was brutally pulled from the belly of the cruise ship and strewn onto a raised work platform. The scene reminded her of an unfortunate murder case she worked back when she was still a rookie.
Inside the opening was another coveralled worker using a diagnostic tool to test connectors along a tangled data hub. “Kelly Burgess?” She asked again. The man turned and paused when he saw her security uniform. She had him. Years of policing had taught her to spot when someone was debating if they should play dumb or run.
“I think you just missed her,” said the man. He had decided to play dumb. Not a bad option considering Kayla was blocking the only exit. “Maybe ask at the distro desk?”
“I know who you are, Burgess,” said Keyla with as much threat as she could muster.
He jostled a finger in his ear as way of explanation. “Loud in here, isn’t it? What can I do you for, officer?”
“I know you’re the one robbing cruise ships.”
The case had first crossed her desk about eight months ago. A veritable treasure trove of passenger valuables had been stolen from the hold of a Meridian Transit cruise. Everything had been loaded on safely, and none of the security systems had picked up anything strange during the flight.
She had assigned the investigation out to one of her better contractors, but what few leads there were dried up and she had no choice but to pull the contract. There had been two more heists, but each time the assigned investigators were unable to catch a break.
Never one to let a mystery rest, Kayla had recently begun analyzing the notes in her spare time. As much as she wanted to take the credit for cracking it, Susan had been the one to notice the pattern in the sensor readouts one day when Kayla had set up a projection of the timeline. All three voyages had a stretch where the logged sensor readouts had been identical. Someone had managed to hack the ship.
The limited scope of the robberies and the fact that only one particular cruise line had been affected had led her to believe that it was an inside job. All the Meridian crew on the ship had been tagged for background sweeps, but she expanded her efforts to include the ground crew at the spaceport. Yesterday, her hunch had paid off when she learned that Kelly Burgess, an electrical repairman who had started working for Meridian nine months ago, had been flagged as a person of interest in a similar case in Cassel five years prior. No formal charges had been brought against him, but Kayla suspected that it was more than just a coincidence. She had it on her schedule for today to assign someone to go pick him up for questioning, but the shipjacking changed those plans.
Now she was doing the questioning herself.
“Robbery? What are you talking about?” said Burgess. Thick beads of sweat started appearing along his brow.
“You’ve got a choice to make and I need you to do it right now,” said Kayla. “I either cuff you right now or you tell how you broke into those ships and I forget we had this conversation.”
Burgess’ eyes narrowed, suspecting a trap. “What do you mean?”
“I need to access a Genesis, and I need to do it without anybody knowing. A lot of people’s lives are depending on it.”
“So, let me get this straight. I tell you how to break on to a starliner, you let me walk?”
“You won’t ever be able to come back to Crusader, but yeah, that’s the idea.”
“How do I know if I tell you, you won’t just arrest me anyway?”
“You’re just going to have to trust me.”
As soon as Burgess had transferred the files over to her to mobi and scurried out of the maintenance bay, Kayla notified Officer Bautista to arrest the man before he could leave the planet. Sure, the hacker had helped her out, but that was not enough to erase his crimes. She made a mental note to speak on his behalf during processing.
Next, she commed Diamond.
“Good timing, Frost,” said Diamond. “We just finished loading up. Care to fill us in on the rest of your brilliant plan?”
“A vid file should have just shown up in your inbox. Don’t try to play it yet.”
“Something I should watch later?” Diamond asked with a wink.
It turned out that Burgess had found a backdoor into the ship’s systems through the in-flight entertainment unit. As he explained it, “Normal avionics are much harder to remotely hack, and even harder to hack without anybody noticing, but Crusader uses a last-gen solution to handle all the in-flight entertainment. Thing had a vulnerability big enough to drive a Nova through.” Burgess would trigger a remote entertainment update while the ship was parked somewhere, spoof the scanners with his custom sensor loop, EVA over, take what he wanted, and leave without a trace.
“It’s an executable. Once you run it, the program will loop the starliner’s sensors for ten minutes and allow you to access the hold. From there, you should be able to regain control of the ship.”
“Well, aren’t you just full of surprises,” said Diamond impressed.
“And there’s still one more to come.” Hopefully it would be enough.
Kayla wasn’t expecting Chief Pontayo to be waiting at her station. Crap. She was pretty sure she just made a ‘play dumb or run’ face of her own.
“Everything set?” asked Pontayo, a raised eyebrow hinting at the seriousness of the question.
“The transport is en route now with the WiDoW securely onboard,” said Kayla, bringing up the ships progress on her display.
“Did you hear that, Terry? Everything is underway.”
Harris entered her station wearing the slick steel-colored jacket he reserved for meeting the press. Sure enough, the PR man was followed in by a reporter with an active capture rig.
“Captain Pontayo. Officer Frost,” said Harris, “this is Terry Powers from NewsForce. They’re going to be documenting the release of these poor hostages. Just do your business and pretend like the camera isn’t even there. Terry, feel free to ask any questions.”
“Could you explain what’s happening now?”
Kayla glanced towards Chief Pontayo, silently asking a combination of “Is this okay?” and “Is this really happening?”
“Officer Frost,” prompted Harris.
Pontayo gave a slight nod, so Kayla began, “The transport is just out of range from the hijacked ship, so we will initiate contact to inform them of the approach not to alert them.”
“And would you say these are extremely dangerous criminals?” Asked Terry.
“No, I mean would you actually say that. It would make for a great soundbite.”
Before Kayla could reply, her comm chimed. “Transport One is in position.” Thankfully, Diamond was smart enough to broadcast audio only.
“Stand by.” Kayla switched channels and commed the outlaws on the captured ship.
“Why does that voice sound so familiar?” asked Pontayo.
Kayla decided to just ignore the question for now. “Come in Baba’s Gift. We have your cargo ready for transfer.”
A moment later, the digitally-altered voice of Jack, the outlaw leader, came through, “Tell them to move in to range and hold for scanning. They do anything else and we start shooting everything and everyone.”
Kayla passed the instructions on to Diamond. On the screen, they watched intently as the hauling ship moved into position.
“Is there any way they could do that again?” Terry asked. “I would love another angle.”
Before Harris could prompt, both Kayla and Pontayo replied with curt a “No.”
“Would you look at that,” said Jack. “Twenty crates of quality ink. You secs actually came through. Was sure I was gonna have to kill a few before you gave in.”
Harris stepped forward. “All we want is the safe return of the hostages,” he said an octave deeper than normal and staring directly into the capture rig. “That is Crusader Industries’ top priority.”
Kayla had to squeeze her fist tightly to keep herself from screaming out. Never call them hostages! Never let them know they have the upper hand!
“Then all you gotta do is drop off the crates and be on your way,” said Jack. “Real win-win.”
“How will we get our people back?” asked Kayla.
“We’ll let you know in a few hours where you can pick them up.” And with that, the jacker closed the comm.
Kayla knew then that she had done the right thing calling in Diamond. The jackers had no intentions of giving back the ship or the people aboard.
Alright Harris, thought Kayla, I hope your reporters enjoy the show.
Kayla opened a channel, “Transport One, begin transfer procedures.” With that, she sat back in her chair. The rest was in Diamond and her crew’s hands.
“Not only do we prioritize safety and comfort on our award-winning vessels,” said Harris, unable to let a moment of quiet survive unfilled, “but here on our world as well. Crusader has dedicated itself to building a security team that can handle any situation. In fact, recent reports have shown that it is safer to vacation here than many other similar destinations.”
Suddenly, a channel opened to Baba’s Gift. “What the hell is going on?” yelled an unaltered voice that Kayla could only assume belonged to Jack. He could barely be heard over the blaring of loud music. Kayla smiled. Sounds like her second surprise was working.
She had gotten Burgess to whip up an impromptu flashbang using the onboard entertainment. Every screen and speaker should be making so much noise right now that the shipjackers won’t be able to think straight.
“What the hell is going on?”
This time it was Harris who was asking. The reporter swung wildly around trying to capture the moment.
“Perhaps some privacy first, Sir?” suggested Pontayo.
Harris’ eyes darted to Terry. He switched instantly to his previous calm demeanor. “Terry, would you mind excusing us for a moment?” Before Terry could protest, Harris firmly pushed them out the door.
Harris turned angrily to Kayla. “Explain. Now.”
“Right now a team of mercenaries is securing Baba’s Gift. Knowing the team, we should be receiving the all clear in a moment or two.”
“That’s how I knew the voice!” exclaimed Pontayo. “You hired Diamond to cart the WiDoW!”
“You did say I was in charge of contracting the transport team, Sir. Can’t help it if I’m really good at picking people.”
“You are done,” said Harris, seething. “Not only are you fired, if I have anything to say about it, you’re going to be locked up for a long time. Chief, I want you to arrest her right now.”
The comm chirped and Diamond appeared on the screen with a grin. “Hey Frosty. All clear. Thirty-two hostages safely accounted for. Three outlaws and twenty crates of WiDoW, ready for lock up. Your little vid worked like a charm.”
“Good work, Diamond,” said Kayla. “Head on back when you can. Make sure you get those people some food and water from the galley and see if any of them need help to the restroom. They’ve been sitting scared for a long time.”
She closed the comm and stood to face Harris. “You can arrest me if you want, but then what are you going to tell that reporter? That you rescued everyone, but had no idea that it was happening? That Crusader Industries botched a successful rescue?”
Harris opened his mouth, but closed it without speaking.
“Or I could tell everyone how amazing your idea was.”
“I’m not going to forget this, Officer Frost,” said Harris before reopening the door. “Good news, Terry! Our hostage rescue went flawlessly. How would you like to meet the heroes as they step off their luxurious Genesis starliner?”
In a moment, the reporter and exec were gone.
“Good work, Frost,” was all Pontayo had to say before he followed.
Kayla, alone, felt her body give out as all the built-up tension began to evaporate. She had done her job and ran the op as well as she could. Now was not the time to think about the fact she might not have that job for very much longer.
No. Now what she wanted more than anything was a steak dinner and to tell Susan all about how she had earned it.