Chapter Twenty-Six

“I understand you’re not a professional reporter, Captain,” the attractive brunette said in an almost soothing tone. “And I know it makes people a bit nervous the first time they have to go through an interview like this. But I promise you, I’ve done this hundreds of times, and none of my interviewees have ever died yet.”

The man sitting across the small desk from her in the uniform of a merchant service deck officer, grinned and chuckled just a bit nervously. Then he nodded.
“I’ll, uh, try to bear that in mind, Ms. Brulé.”
“Good. And remember, we don’t have to get it perfect the first time. Just tell us what really happened, in your own words, and then we’ll play it back and if you realize you’ve misspoken at some point, we can correct it. And if you realize you’ve left anything out, we can put it in at that point, too. The object is to get all of the information into the right people’s hands, not to try to be perfect while we do it. Okay?”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
“Good,” the brunette repeated, then looked directly into the waiting pickup.
“This is a recorded interview with Captain Tanguy Carmouche, commander of the New Tuscany-registry freighter Antelope, concerning certain events which occurred in the San Miguel System. I am Anne-Louise Brulé, conducting this interview for the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Trade, and the Treasury. This record is being made on July 7, 1921 Post Diaspora, on the planet of New Tuscany.”
She finished the official tag, then turned back to Captain Carmouche.
“Very well, Captain Carmouche. Could you please explain to us, in your own words, exactly what happened?”
“In San Miguel, you mean?” Carmouche said, then grimaced in obvious embarrassment. “Sorry. I guess I really am a little nervous.”
Brulé smiled encouragingly, and the captain cleared his throat and straightened slightly in his chair.
“Well, we’d arrived in San Miguel early last month to collect a cargo which had been chartered before this Constitutional Convention in Spindle voted out its ‘constitution.’ Now, San Miguel’s always been part of the Rembrandt Trade Union, and the Union’s always favored using its own bottoms instead of chartering foreign-registry ships, so there’ve been occasional problems for skippers who don’t belong to the RTU, but generally, we’ve been able to work things out without too much trouble.
“This time, though, when Antelope made her parking orbit, we were boarded by a Manticoran customs party, not one from San Miguel or the Trade Union. That was unusual, but I just figured it was part of the new political set up, so I didn’t worry about it too much. Until, that is, the Manties started tearing the ship part looking for ‘contraband.'”
Carmouche’s face tightened in remembered anger, and he shrugged jerkily.
“I wasn’t any too happy about that,” he said. “I mean, I can understand wanting to keep a handle on smuggling, especially out here in the Verge. I don’t have a problem with that. For that matter, I know our own customs people keep a close eye on ships entering New Tuscany, especially if they aren’t regular visitors on this run. But there’s courteous ways to go about it, and then there’s ways that . . . aren’t so courteous. Like the way these bas –”
He broke off, shook himself, and grimaced.
“Sorry,” he said again. “I meant like the way these people did it. I don’t necessarily expect anyone to bow down to me. I mean, I know I’m merchant service, not the Navy. But, by God, Antelope is my ship! I’m the one responsible to the owners, and even if I’m only merchant service, there’s a certain amount of respect any skipper has a right to expect out of visitors aboard his ship. I don’t care who they are!
“But these people didn’t waste any respect on anyone aboard Antelope. They were rude, insulting, and what I have to think was deliberately antagonistic. They didn’t make requests; they demanded whatever it was they wanted. They insisted on bringing aboard all kinds of scanners and detection equipmet, too, and they went through every cargo space with a fine tooth comb. Took hours, given the size of our holds, but they insisted. Just like they insisted on checking every bill of lading individually against its cargo container — didn’t matter whether or not the container’s port-of-origin customs seals were intact, either. They even made us open a whole stack of containers so they could physically eyeball the contents! And they made it pretty clear that if we didn’t do exactly what they wanted, they’d refuse us entry for the planet and prohibit any orbital cargo transshipment.”
Carmouche leaned forward in his chair, his face and body language both more animated in an evident combination of anger and increasing confidence under Brulé’s encouraging, gravely sympathetic expression.
“Well, I managed to put up with their ‘customs inspection’ without popping a blood vessel or slugging anyone, but it wasn’t easy. We got them back off the ship — finally — and we got our clearances from them, but that was when we found out we were going to have to submit to a medical examination before we were allowed to take on or discharge cargo. We weren’t discharging cargo, anyway, and they damned well knew it. And I’ve never been asked for a medical certification to take on cargo! At a port of entry, sure. Anyone wants to keep a close eye on anyone who might be bringing in some kind of contagion. But when there’s not going to be any contact between any of my people or the planetary environment — for that matter, not even between any of my people and an orbital warehouse, for God’s sake, since the cargo was coming aboard in San Miguel shuttles! — it didn’t make any sense at all. For that matter, they’d checked our current medical records as part of their customs inspection!
“I didn’t understand it then, but it started making sense later, when I realized it didn’t have anything to do with medical precautions. Not really. No matter what we did, there was always another hoop waiting for us to jump through before we were going to be allowed to load our cargo. After the medical examination, they insisted on checking our engineering logs to make sure we weren’t going to suffer some sort of catastrophic impeller casualty in heavily traveled volumes of the star system. And after that, they decided they had to inspect our enviro plant’s waste recycling and disposal systems, since they didn’t want us littering in their precious star system!”
He shook his head angrily.
“The only thing I could come up with, since every one of those ‘inspections’ of theirs was completely bogus, as far as I could tell, was that it was a systematic effort to make it very clear that Antelope wasn’t welcome in San Miguel. The RTU’s always been protective of its own interests, but I was under the impression from everything everyone was saying before the Constitutional Convention that the Manties supported free trade. Well, maybe they do, and maybe they don’t, but I can tell you this — if they do think free trade is a good idea, they obviously don’t think it’s a good idea for everyone! And after I figured out what was going on, I asked around. There were a couple of other ships in orbit, but we were the only one from New Tuscany. And by the oddest coincidence, we were also the only one being subjected to all those ‘inspections.’ Which suggested to me that maybe what this was all about was the fact that we hadn’t ratified their ‘constitution,’ and this was an example of payback. I don’t know about that for sure, of course, but as soon as I got back to New Tuscany, I spoke to the Ministry of Trade about it, and I don’t mind telling you I was just a bit hot when I did. Apparently, I’m not the only New Tuscan skipper this has happened to, either. Or that was my impression, anyway, when they asked me to make an official statement for the record.”
He looked at Brulé and raised an eyebrow, but she shook her head with a commiserating smile.
“I’m afraid I don’t really know about that, Captain Carmouche,” she said, in the tone of voice someone used to add “and if I did know, I couldn’t tell you,” without ever saying so out loud.
“Well, whatever,” Carmouche said after a moment, “that’s about the size of it. Were there any specific questions you wanted to ask, Ma’am?”
“There were a few points where the ministries wanted a little more detail, Captain,” Brulé said, keying a memo pad and glancing down at the display. “Let me see . . . . All right, first, did you get the name and rank of the Manticoran officer in charge of the original customs inspection?”
“No,” Carmouche replied with another grimace. “Never offered it. Suppose I should have insisted, but it’s the first time I ever had a regular navy officer come aboard my ship and not give his name and rank. Personally, I think he didn’t want me to have it in case I ended up lodging any formal protests. Of course, I didn’t know then that I was going to be doing that, either. So, instead of asking, I –”