Crate after crate rolled briskly along the expansive cargo receiving ramp that ended somewhere within the bowels of the ship. Shining with the lead coating that protected their contents from the radiation of deep space, the line of shipping containers blurred in his tired gaze, morphing into a long silvery apparition writhing and twisting its way free from the starship just beyond the pressure hatch.
Matt Dales rubbed his eyes, endeavoring to massage them back to clarity. He needed a break. Straightening his back, the cargo inspector looked down the length of the ramp. He was half a head taller than the security officer stooped beside him. A transitory pang of loss struck. He had once an officer of the law, not simply a cargo inspector with a badge. Those days were a long time past and belonged to a place many light years away.
Regularly spaced along the conveyor line, members of Sirius’ finest were up to their uniformed elbows in recently arrived crates of fertilizer and seed. It was all for show, however. The additional inspectors were only useful for adding legitimacy to the discovery, to make his sudden unearthing of contraband seem a little less “mysterious.” The chief had insisted on the additional manpower when he first approached him with his “hunch.”
Shifting his weight from one sore foot to the other, Matt waited and tried to look as bored and put out as the others. He exhaled loudly and fumbled through a box of spray sealant. The line of creates looked endless. It was standard procedure to search the cargo of every time a ship docked with a screamer, but this time the chief called for all hands. This time Matt knew what to look for. In his dream, he had seen it with total clarity.
It was difficult maintaining his patience. The box was approaching. When he saw it, he would have to look surprised. Matt never put stock in dreams. It was silly but damned if they weren’t correct more often than not recently. The visions were clear.
Moreover, the chief believed, or he wouldn’t have authorized the detailed search of the cargo. He’d never dreamed anything like it before. He wasn’t sure how he knew, but he could feel that it was a very important box. It was going to change his life unless it was only a dream. Then, of course, his credibility with the chief would evaporate and he’d be a cargo inspector until he retired.
The creaking of the ship’s hydraulic hatch reverberated through the warehouse. It bothered him that a shiny new spacecraft should have such ill-maintained machinery. The loud screeching of gears quieted only to be replaced by biological, and decidedly human, wails. The woman’s disturbing howls echoed down the gangway, loud, tormented, and devoid of reason. They razed Dale’s nerves, distracting him from the job at hand.
Focus, he chastised himself. Her pain cannot touch you. It’s not yours.
The next box was filled with standard issue Colonial maintenance worker tube socks. But the pain felt tangible and was almost more than he could stand. It was the sound of a destroyed mind, a destroyed life, and he vowed to find those responsible. Those who thought nothing of throwing the passenger’s humanity into the trash bin, for money. Each wail battered at the defenses he was struggling to maintain. He had to shut it out.
Two orderlies pushed a gurney along the corridor. The victim was strapped tightly. Still, she struggled, fighting like an animal no longer capable of comprehension. The men spoke to each other as if the woman wasn’t there. For all they cared, the woman was cargo to be delivered. He envied them, their callousness.
You can do this. His fortitude was strained to the breaking point. A ghastly, sustained cry echoed through his head conveying memories barely remembered. Angry shouts, berating, assaulted his senses; the smell of gunpowder and the sharp reports of gunfire. He struggled against vivid fragments trying to escape the deepest recesses of his mind. He grappled with them, focusing all his willpower to shove the memories back where they would do no harm.
Matt wanted to escape the sound, to run as far away as his legs could take him, to shake her until she ceased her horrible caterwauling. It wasn’t her fault. No one asked to have their mind torn away in a moment of terrible revelation. The unfortunate woman had been exposed to the mind rip without the full protection of the hyperdrug. She would never be the same again.
The upsetting echoes receded as the paramedics rolled the woman down the passage that led the medical center. Free from the distressing stimuli, Matt gathered his strength and forced the flotsam and jetsam of the past back into his subconscious. A deep breath helped the calm, and he turned his attention once again to the line.
He couldn’t help her. No one could. He could, however, get the bastard responsible. He summoned the image from his dream and focused until it was clear in his mind. It would be a long box marked with ‘canned pork.’ The stenciled label would be marred, a black slash through the O and R, intentionally made to look like a careless labeler mistake. One by one, the boxes flew by, small boxes stacked upon larger boxes poured down the belt. The box was buried at the bottom of one of the piles.
“Find it yet?” The energetic voice of Jack Kramer came unannounced from behind. The startled cargo inspector dropped to a crouch, his hand moving instinctively to his sidearm. “Hold on there, chief. Friend.”
“Don’t do that.” Matt admonished. He turned back toward the conveyer to hide his embarrassment, heart racing at hyper-speed. It was the last thing he needed. Freaking out in front of a security officer. Most of them already considered him a head case. “You could have gotten yourself seriously tasered.”
“Back up, Kramer. Don’t crowd him.” The familiar voice of Ken Vanderhaar, chief of colonial security and the only man in the universe who would give Matt a job, broke the tension. The last thing he needed was to look the fool to one of his oldest friends. Ken whispered in his ear. “I’m backing you on this because your leads are usually good. I need to know if you can handle it. Don’t give me cause to think the Doc cleared you too soon. It’ll be back to desk duty. Understood?”
“Yes, Sir.” Matt went back to the line. The irregular pattern formed by the streaming boxes was growing familiar.
“Kramer, go double check the end of the line,” The chief ordered.
“Right, thousands of boxes and I have to find a couple small tubes of rec drugs,” Kramer grumbled. “Couldn’t it be neon pink?”
“It won’t be long,” Matt whispered to his chief.
“Just take your position, and keep alert.”
“Yes, sir.” Kramer walked along the conveyer toward the end of the belt.
“This cluster of boxes coming down the belt now looks right.”
“Okay, Matt. Those hunches of yours can get pretty damned specific.” The chief adjusted his mustache.
“Next time, I’ll try to be vaguer.”
“Stop here.” The chief raised his hand, and the belt slowed to a stop. Matt made a show of looking through the surrounding boxes before he assailed the large pile before him. His heart raced as a familiar shape came into view, a dream vision made real. He shivered, in the realization that another dream came true. The first couple of times it happened, he chalked it up to coincidence. Lately, however, he dreamed things that he knew would happen.
The chief frowned. “If the Trust got a whiff of these hunches of yours, they’d have you before I could lift a finger.”
“The Trust is a fairy tale Ken, the stuff of conspiracy theories.” He moved a few boxes and revealed a longer box, labeled ‘canned pork,’ the writing disfigured with a black slash through the O and R. “But to make you happy it’s the one with the black mark on it. You do the honors.”
“You sure?” The captain asked. “It was your hunch.”
“Yeah,” He searched through some nearby boxes. “You can have the credit for this one.”
Matt produced a knife and cut open the first box. Women’s shoes for a shoe store, a fashionable shop from the look of them. The executives went nuts for new fashions from Earth. To him, they just looked impractical and restrictive. But he looked through the box, putting up his best diligent front and then moved on to the next: work boots.
The chief made a show of carefully looking through the designated crate until he felt the necessary amount of time had passed before pulling two long cylinders of black liquid. He turned and whispered. “Bingo. You know your hunches border on the spooky.”
“For me, too, sir.”
“Kramer, bring an evidence bag!” The chief pulled a portable spectral analyzer from his belt and waved it slowly over the tubes. “It’s the hyper drug, and it’s pure.”
“Damn. How many passengers were short dosed for that much?” Matt already knew the answer. He’d seen the consequences. The woman they rolled out had most likely gotten a half dose of the mind-shielding drug, the remainder filled with one of those tubes. From the window, he could see spacecraft on the docking platform. That design could convey a hundred or more passengers. The size of the plastic vials the chief held up indicated that at least ten more passengers on that ship were subjected to the mind rip.
However, it wasn’t certain that they would all end up like that woman. Some people didn’t need a full dose, but most did, and the victim’s only hope was to have their memory centers surgically destroyed. To save the woman’s life, the doctors were going to erase the memories, and burn them out of her brain. If she was fortunate, her life could continue almost as usual. People survive all the time without the ability to make new memories. It was a horrible fate, but still, beat screaming until her body gave out.
The image of the man accountable for such an outrage flashed through his mind. Matt would know the man when he saw him, but it would take evidence to convict the fiend and put an end to his business.
“Once diluted, this would have made near forty doses.” The chief put the scanner back into its case on his hip.
“Enough Fantasia to make it worth destroying a life and maybe more?” Matt bristled with anger.
“Kramer,” the chief called into his shoulder transmitter. “Get over to the executive officer. I want to know who was responsible for this particular section of freight.”
“On it, sir.” Kramer’s voice returned.
“Worth several thousand on the ‘street.’ People have killed for less.”
Matt believed it was an odd phrase for the chief to use on a planet with dome cities, walking paths, and public rails, but language was often slow to adapt to new realities. Now the term referred to the underground, criminal economy.
“It was the responsibility of the Assistant Purser, Chief.” The shoulder transmitter emitted Kramer’s voice. “Should I have him brought in for questioning?”
“Have there been any more screamers?” Matt asked a passing ship’s officer.
“I’m not aware of any more, sir. But most of the passengers have yet to be woken.” The man said.
“Expect more.” the chief held the tubes up. “There will be more.”
“They should nail Bay… the assistant purser to the wall.” It was growing more difficult for Matt to keep his anger in check. He never liked the docks, and the sight of the starship sent waves of anxiety pounding against his skull. He turned and walked to a pile of crates and sat on one with his head in his hands. “Exposure would be too good for him.”
As a child, he’d spent much of his time on a serene beach in northern California. Matt let his mind wander there and drift in the cool dark waters. He visualized the warm sands of the beach, the houses that line up along the cliffs and the daughters of the wealthy as they smiled and waved down at him. His breathing slackened, and his anger started to abate. You can do it. You are in control. The world is the Pacific, and like it so are you.
“Are you okay?” The chief’s voice dispelled the sand and pushed the waters away.
Matt locked his mind onto the calm of the ocean, and grudgingly opened his eyes. “It’s just a little close in here.”
“You did a good job, go on home. I’ll take care of the rest. Just be in on time tomorrow. You don’t want to get in trouble with the boss.” Chief Vanderhaar lifted his hat to wipe the sweat off his smooth bald scalp.
“You’re the boss.”
“Then I should know what I’m talking about,” he said. “And Matt, go see your psychiatrist. If you can’t function in a crowd, then I have no use for you.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Matt got up, fired off a salute, and strode toward the exit. The remnants of the security forces were dispersed along the conveyor still searching for illegal imports. Most of the warehouse workers were trying to get a better look. A clear path opened to the exit, and Matt made use of it to sneak out. He made a mental note of everyone’s position as he moved past them. It wasn’t exactly a habit; it was a compulsion. He wished he could ignore them, observing people all the time was tiring, but it beat the anxiety caused by not knowing if a threat loomed.