Chapter VII: Kei "Wanderer" Makivic

"Alright, lads and lasses, this is Capricorn Station."

Kei watched the mess hall table project a holographic image of a rather imposing, if beautiful space station orbiting a planet.

Then the image fizzled and died.

She watched with amusement as the Captain shot a glare at Joker, who shrugged, got up, walked over to the device on the table, and smacked it once, hard. After the machine made something of a whirring sound, the projector burst back to life, once again lighting up the darkened mess hall with the holographic image of Capricorn Station. To be fair, the Song was an old ship.

"Thanks," the Captain muttered as Joker retook his seat amidst mock applause. He then motioned towards the projection. "In orbit over Titan, the station, as you well know, harbours a spaceport in its upper levels that serves as a popular tourist hub for those first coming to the Core Worlds, or seeking to leave."

"Get to the good part!" Joker mock-heckled.

"Shut it, Joker," the Captain replied without missing a beat. A click of his control had the projection zoom in on a particular section of the station. "This here is Terminal A. Usually, it sees about a quarter of the station's traffic pass through its halls." He clicked again, and the red dots that had been coursing through the section — probably to indicate foot traffic — vanished. "These days, that number has dropped to near zero."

"Why is that, Captain?" Kae asked.

"Officially? Renovations. Station feed says it's been on the books for years," Alice answered in the Captain's stead. She nodded at him, prompting another image shift, this time showing green dots moving around Terminal A. "This...is Kasich's info. As you can see, there are still people using Terminal A, just a hell of a lot fewer."

"Fits the whole construction story," Kei pointed out.

"Except it's also where our target is located," the Captain retook the lead, zooming in the image on a particular docking bay. "The TFS Good Deal. Officially, it's a freighter belonging to MTP Construction Group, delivering materials for the renovation job."

"But…?" prompted Snap.

"It hasn't moved in over five days," Alice answered calmly. "And I don't care how good you are at packing, there's no way a freighter of this size brought enough to renovate the entire terminal in one go, and there haven't been resupply freighters, either."

"So what is it?" asked Bear, leaning forward.

The Captain shrugged. "We don't know. Kasich was tight-lipped on that, and our favourite assbag didn't know, either. That makes me think whatever it is, it's valuable."

"Or government property," Kei pointed out reasonably. "Or both."

"Which is why Kasich wants it, probably," the Captain noted. Another click of his remote and the image was zoomed back out into an overview of the station. Even in a scaled representation, Kei could tell the entire thing was huge. Thankfully, the heist only involved the top-most sectors. The lower levels, the residential areas, were far harder to access.

"Crazy fucker always did hate the UNSA," Bear grumbled.

"So, what does this mean for the job?" asked Mac.

"It means we're going to need to do some good, old fashioned recon because, even with Kasich's intel, we're woefully short on information," the Captain answered calmly before staring at their resident medic. "Kae, I'm going to need all hands on board on this one, and Capricorn Station has a decent enough X'ndrian population that you won't stand out. Even so, Titan has a nasty history with your people, so try not to draw attention to yourself."

"I understand, Captain."

He nodded in appreciation. "Good. The rest of you, same as always. Alice will stay onboard the Song just in case we need a quick getaway. Kei, you'll be with Marcus scouting out entry points."

Kei nodded, smiling at her colleague. Gardner was a good crewmate and a good conversationalist. She couldn't have asked for a better partner.

"Joker, you'll stay on the ship — if we do need to leave, I need the ship in top shape, yeah? I also need you to whip up some dummy ship transponders for our getaway plan."

"Aw, you guys always get all the fun."

"Remember Verdant?"

"Point taken. Enjoy the bullets, suckers."

"You're a regular ray of sunshine, jackass," Snap said, swatting him upside the head. "Careful the engine room doesn't get too loud — might cause you to soil yourself again!"

That drew a chuckle from Bear, while Joker looked rather indignant. "First of all, I did not soil myself! Vomited, sure, but no soiling every took place!"

"Moving on," the Captain interjected smoothly, drawing their attention back to the presentation. "Snap, Bear, I want you two to scope out their security arrangement. Their facial ID tech is much better than the stuff we usually see, so make sure you're practically unrecognisable."

"Shouldn't be a problem, boss," Snap assured him. She waved at the hologram. "From what I see, there's two main access ways into Terminal A, so we'll tackle those first. Real problem is getting information on security inside the terminal."

Kei perked up. "If I can get to a Terminal computer, I could try and hack them for blueprints," she offered. Ordinarily, this would've been Iris' job, but space stations kept their sensitive information on "dark" drives — storage drives that had been wholly disconnected from the station's internet. The only hitch, if she had to be completely honest, was that she was wholly inexperienced in Core World security protocols.

"No," the Captain shot the idea down immediately. "Sorry, Kei, but Core World security is a whole other league from the Middle Colonies. Last guy who tried something like that got arrested in record time."

"And that's if the security drones don't shoot you to shreds," Alice added for good measure. "Heck, even Iris would have a tough time with their security."

Kei swallowed nervously. "Alright, point taken," she conceded, but then frowned. "Then how are we supposed to get schematics for the job?"

John and Alice glanced at each other before he grinned and she sighed. That was never a good sign in Kei's experience. It usually meant the Captain had some harebrained idea that was either going to make them all wealthy, or very, very dead.

"The good, old-fashioned way," he declared cheerily. Far too cheerily for Kei's ease of mind.

"We're going to bribe our way to them."

There was stunned silence in the mess hall as the crew processed the Captain's words. Then, in a second, it was full of shouting and declarations of disbelief. Kei, too, was flabbergasted. There was simply no way to bribe a Core World official. It just wasn't done — and even a dumb, rookie smuggler like herself knew it.

The UNSA Core Worlds were steeped in tradition with regards to public office. The closer to Earth you went, the more entrenched they were about the old fashioned notions of dedicated public service and accountability. It was said that a Core Worlds police officer was worth a thousand policemen from the Middle Colonies, and 5000 Outer Colonies policemen, in terms of personal integrity.

It wasn't hard to see why, though. Core Worlders, even those who worked at the bottom of the hierarchy, lived off salaries the rest of the UNSA could only dream about. Growing up on the JOC, she had constantly been told by her parents that they had it tough, but the moment she'd set foot on Wodan, Hesiod, or even Mina, she'd realised how much utter bullshit that was. The average JOC citizen lived as well as a rich man on Eridu. As a result, the incentive for corruption was almost null among the general population in the Core Worlds, which needed for virtually nothing.

"Who in their right mind would accept a bribe from us?" asked Joker, still disbelieving.

"Oh, someone will, I can assure you," the Captain replied calmly, like he wasn't gambling with all their lives.

"With all due respect, Captain, I fail to see how," Kae interjected, looking quite troubled for a X'ndrian. "In the past ten cycles, I have not heard of a single instance of corruption even being suspected in the Core Worlds governments."

"That's because it's not about money," the Captain noted simply. Kei frowned. What did that mean?

"What're you talking about, boss?" she asked.

"We're not going to give anyone anything," he said with a playful grin. "We're going to promise not to do something."

As understanding flooded the room, Kei remained uncertain. "Blackmail requires material, though, boss. We don't exactly have an elaborate surveillance system to follow people around for prolonged periods of time…"

"And aren't we on a deadline?" asked Gardner. "Last I checked, we have, what? Three days to act before that freighter flies away and we can't catch it?"

"Three and a half, and you're right, Kei," John conceded at her, nodding. "Which is why we're going to target someone we know is dirty and works security."

Kei frowned — a look she saw mimicked throughout most of the crew. Only Alice was unperturbed, probably because she already knew the answer.

"Someone we know is dirty?" echoed Mac. "In the Core? Who?"

Alice sighed. "Kipling's contact."

Slam.

Kei jumped in fright before whirling around, seeing Bear's fist planted against the wall, an expression of astonishment on his face.

"He gave Kipling credentials being used by criminals," the huge man said in a moment of realisation. "He'd get nailed to the wall for it. And that's not just a fine and a job loss — that's grounds for exile from the Core Worlds! Him and his family!"

Kei quickly spun back around to look at the Captain and Alice, who nodded. "That's right," the Captain confirmed. "See, these Core Worlders are all alike — incorruptible if it's about money. But power? Prestige? Comfort? You threaten any of these, and they'll fold just like any other corrupt official. It's just a matter of using the correct leverage."

There was a startled laugh from Mac as Joker sat there, stunned, and Gardner nodded along. Kae seemed pensive about the Captain's words, while Snap and Bear high-fived. Despite feeling similarly optimistic, however, Kei knew she also had to speak out, just in case they weren't thinking this through. After all, they did have one glaring flaw in their plan.

"What if he decides to turn us in anyway?" she asked reasonably. "I mean, this all assumes he values everything you just said over his integrity."

"He's a government worker, Kei," Joker jibed. "They're always out for themselves."

"Not always," she cut through the mild laughter, regaining the floor. She was very aware of the eyes on her now and swallowed. "When I lived on the JOC, I knew a guy who worked on the Housing and Aid Commission. He always came through for people, even when he had nothing to gain from going above and beyond the line of duty."

"Honest politicians are the exception, not the rule, Kei," the Captain pointed out. "And, fortunately, we all know that Kipling never did like the knight in shining armour types. If his contact was willing to hand over fake credentials, then he's probably dirty."

Kei nodded, conceding the point. She remembered Kipling's frustration whenever the Captain decided to withhold the use of force in some of their jobs. Honestly, in retrospect, that violent streak ought to have been a major wake-up call. Unfortunately, it had taken getting shot in the stomach before she could really see the man for the odious worm he was. Not a mistake she'd ever do again.

She hoped.

"The critical thing here is to scout out the premises before we launch our heist," the Captain reminded the crew. "The overall layout of Terminal A doesn't matter so much because we can just reconstruct that from eyewitness accounts and pics in the cloud. What we need are the hidden nooks and crannies that will get the job done. As such, I'm counting on all of you to keep an eye out for anything that might help the job go through."

He looked over at Kae, whose pale, alien eyes had returned to their serene expression. "Doc, once the job is go, I'm going to need you to stand by in the ship. If there's any whiff that a member of your species is involved in a Core World heist...well...you know what the locals are like regarding X'ndrians. Don't need to invite any nastiness if at all possible."

Kae seemed unfazed by the comment, though Kei often wondered if perhaps the alien woman was more hurt than she was willing to admit at still finding pockets of intolerance towards her people in UNSA space. "Understood, Captain."

Kei watched as the Captain looked at them all for a moment before nodding and placing his hands akimbo. She had to restrain a giggle — he always liked to pose whenever he needed to project confidence. "Alright, then. If all goes well, we should have a concrete plan drawn up by tomorrow. Good luck."