Jien was surprised to see them back so soon. Sessra’s reaction, however, was much different. The moment he laid eyes on them, the fear in him shot sky-high. Kor wrapped the Force around him and slammed him against the ceiling. Thinking it was an attack, Jien came out of his chair with a roar, brandishing a blaster.
Prauf lit his lightsaber and held out his hand. “It’s only Sessra! Not you! Just Sessra!”
Jien hesitated, suspicion written all over him. “Why? What’s going on?”
Kor brought Sessra back down, slamming him on the floor and holding him there. “This snake is the one who’s been giving inside information to the pirates. And when we found out, he tried to have us killed a few minutes ago on the outpost commanded by Delza. The orders were relayed through the port commander here.”
Jien’s face hardened. “Sessra has been my right-hand man for years. I need proof.”
“We can force him to tell the truth,” Kor said.
Jien barked laughter. “And I’m supposed to believe something you forced out of him?”
Kor hesitated. Now what? He glanced at Prauf who had more experience dealing with these types than he did. Prauf smiled.
“Bring in the port commander,” he told Jien. “When he sees us here, holding Sessra on the floor, he’ll crack like an egg.”
Jien eyed Prauf up and down. “According to the news you used to be a bounty hunter.”
Prauf gave him an evil grin. “They called me Professor Death. I was the best.”
Jien pressed a button on his desk. Moments later several security guards came in. They paused at the sight of Sessra being held on the floor. “Boss?”
“Go get the port commander, Bonga Zhathe, and bring him here,” Jien said heavily. “Not a word to him about what you’ve seen. Don’t say anything to him. Make him sweat.”
They nodded and went out.
With nothing to do, the four of them stayed frozen in their tableau until the guards returned with Bonga. They heard him babbling that he hadn’t done anything before the guards hustled into Jien’s office. As soon as the man saw Sessra on the floor he went pasty white. His knees gave out and he nearly fell. The guards had to pick him up and carry him. He was already begging for mercy before they dropped him at Jien’s feet.
“Please, Viceroy, please! It was Sessra’s idea. He made me do it, swore he’d have my family killed if I didn’t! Please, please, I’ll tell you anything you want to know!” Bonga was nearly hysterical with fear.
Jien stepped back with revulsion written all over his face. “What did Sessra make you do?”
Bonga didn’t have to be asked twice. “He made me give the outposts on P2 and P3 the oldest, shoddiest equipment we had on hand, then ignore all their incoming reports. He said when he took your place I could have his post as Minister of Security, but he said if I didn’t do it he’d torture my family to death; make me watch!”
“How was he going to take my place?”
“He’s helping the pirates. He told them where they could find an old Imperial fuel tanker floating somewhere in asteroid belt #2. The engines are busted but it’s full of fuel so the miners wouldn’t always be running on empty. That way they could sell their ore somewhere else. He said when you couldn’t stop them, the Council would remove you as Viceroy and he’d take over.”
Jien glanced at Sessra. His anger had faded to be replaced by fear as Bonga spilled his guts. “Please, it was a mistake. I got a little greedy, that’s all.”
“Shut up!” Jien kicked him in the side. Sessra cried out in pain. “Where’s that tanker?”
“I don’t know.”
Jien kicked him again, harder.
Sessra screamed in agony. “I swear, I don’t know! The miners moved it! They went rogue and moved it!”
Kor and Prauf traded uneasy looks. Killing an enemy in combat was one thing but torturing him was another.
Jien paused. “Went rogue?”
“I lost control. They’re working for themselves now.”
Jien laughed harshly. “Oh, this is beautiful. You created some fake pirates to push me out of office, only now they’ve turned into real pirates who might destroy everything!” He dropped his blaster on his desk. Addressing the guards, he said, “Get these scum outta my office. Put them in different cells where they can’t talk to one another. I’ll deal with them later.”
“Yes, Sir!” They jumped to obey, hauling a protesting Sessra and an unresisting Bonga out of the room.
Jien sat at his desk and glanced up at Prauf. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in a job as Minister of Security, would you?”
Prauf shook his head.
“Hmph. Didn’t think so.” He sighed, then looked them up and down. “You haven’t been here half the morning and you’ve already turned everything upside-down. I don’t know if I should let you keep working or have you run out of the system.” He sighed again. “Still, the pirates have to be stopped and you’re my best bet.” He came to an abrupt decision. “Do what you have to, but when this over, I hope I never see you again.”
They nodded silently and went out.
“That was brutal,” Kor remarked once they were safely back on the Whimsy and burning their way through the sky.
“He’s a mob boss,” Prauf told him. “Did you see how his first reaction was to question Sessra about the fuel tanker? I saw his eyes when Bonga was talking about the miners always running on empty. It wasn’t news to him. I’ll bet they charge the miners an arm and a leg for fuel then pay them next to nothing for the ore.”
“Keeping them under his thumb,” Kor agreed somberly.
“Yeah, and our job is to restore that sorry state of affairs. I don’t know if I can do this.”
Kor bit his lip. He understood how Prauf felt. Their third principle dictated that they were neutral toward all governments but this was the first time it had been put to the test. He said as much.
Prauf was dismayed. “So? What then? You think we should go ahead and stop the pirates? Just let Jien keep ramrodding the miners?”
“I think we should keep looking and try to find a way to enforce honesty instead of laws,” Kor responded.
Prauf growled wordlessly. “I feel like a hypocrite!”
“I know. Me too, but for right now, let’s try to make the best of it. Maybe something will come up.”
“It better, ‘cause I’m telling you, kid; I don’t like this. I don’t like it one bit!”
The data disk Sessra had given them was full of information on the miners, their ships, their staging areas, the locations of the terminals they brought their ore to, the routes for the cargo haulers, fueling stations, company stores, and colonies for the miner’s families. Jien, or Sessra, it didn’t matter which, hadn’t bothered to scrub any ore or fuel prices. The difference in them was nothing short of criminal.
There was even a running total of each miner’s income and bills. Most of them were deeply in the red. The sporadic big hauls they brought in were only enough for them to break even, never enough to get ahead.
There was a history of every pirate attack in the last two years since it started. They put a hologram of the system in the air in the galley, then slowly superimposed each pirate attack in turn. As they watched it, they realized Sessra had been telling the truth about the randomness of the attacks. There was no rhyme or reason to them at all.
There was one pattern though.
For the first nine months, the attacks had been slow, averaging about one a week. During that time there weren’t any deaths. There were some injuries and minor ship damage, but nothing major. It abruptly changed in the tenth month, starting with two of the miner’s ships being attacked and destroyed. Until that point, the “pirates” had only attacked cargo haulers. Attacking – and destroying – the mining ships was uncharacteristic of them.
Following that event, attacks on the cargo haulers suddenly increased to three or four a week. This time, there were almost always severe injuries, deaths, and major ship damage.
“That’s where the miners got greedy and became real pirates,” Prauf commented as they watched it.
“Have we got a list of the crew on those destroyed mining ships?”
Prauf nodded. He punched it up. Kor’s expression, and his, showed sudden surprise.
Kor whistled. “That’s a lot of people for two mining ships.”
Prauf opened a file that detailed the normal complement on a mining ship. “About four times what it should be.”
Kor thought it over. “What do you bet those ships weren’t destroyed at all? I’ll bet they faked an attack and those “dead” miners are the pirates.”
“That’s a sucker bet, kid.”
“Is that Prauf ne Jhemon d’Aubreta talking or Professor Death?”
“Both. Neither. Who cares?” Prauf examined the list. “We need to talk to anyone who knew them. Maybe they can give us a lead on what part of the Rings they frequented, give us a picture of how they thought and acted.”
Kor played with the controls, looking for commonalities. Four names came up of people who knew most of the missing miners turned pirate; Jorge Ancho, Ladd Inux, Rolf One Eye, and Mia Riencam. He pulled up the file on each of them, including ship registry, personal information and history, physical description, photo, medical records, age, date of birth, and all the usual family background. The last one, Mia Riencam, had been a Republic fighter pilot before retiring to become a miner.
Kor felt his hackles go up. After the last two encounters with the New Republic, the last thing he wanted to do was tangle with a Republic fighter pilot. “We’ll save her for last,” he muttered.
“And hope we don’t have to bother,” Prauf added. He shared Kor’s pessimistic outlook on dealing with anyone from the New Republic. He peered at the screen. “There are 365 terminals in each Ring, one for each Sector. According to this, all four of those miners operate in sector 286.”
“Just one sector over from where Delza and Kaa’nas said the pirates had their hideout,” Kor grinned. “What to do suppose the odds are on that? Another sucker bet?”
Prauf matched his grin. “You’re learning, kid. You’re learning.”
They headed for the cockpit and set course for Terminal 286.
The hyperspace jump to the edge of Ring One was only a split second but it took them another hour of weaving through asteroids to reach the Terminal. It was an ungainly collection of pods, modules, and silos, connected by a spiderweb of enclosed walkways and tunnels. Larger tunnels extended out in every direction with docking arms on them.
The moment they were in sight of it, weapons alarms went off all over the Whimsy as their sensors identified weapon after weapon on the Terminal coming to life and targeting them.
The comm blared at them, “Unidentified ship! Halt or be destroyed!”