Story by Geoff Tuffli
++++ DATE 3.3.2470
++++ TIME 07:58 CST
++++ LOCATION Sioux City, State, Earth
Maggie Cao looked up at the tap on her door. "That's me. May I help you?"
"Bernard Huxley. State Internal Security." He held up a hand quickly, "Not here for you. Probably," he joked. "This is more in the way of a consultation."
Maggie nodded at the open chair on the opposite side of her desk. "What can I do for you, Mr. Huxley?"
"I am investigating a series of disappearances, and was when I ran an A.I. assisted network search, your name came up as someone who might be able to help. Do you have any idea why?" Bernard asked, settling into the chair with a heavy sigh.
Maggie set aside her terminal, folding her hands in her lap. "I can't imagine."
"As it turns out, I can. I took the liberty of looking you up." Bernard shrugged. "Hazard of my business. I'm sure you understand. Every one of said disappearances has occurred in the course of off-planet travel. Given my own upcoming vacation plans to visit the Water Gardens of Mare City on Luna, I have a personal interest in this as well," he chuckled. "Other than the method of travel, however, no other pattern. None. So now you can see why your name came up."
"Because I am the Chief Transport Logistics Specialist for Roche Industries."
"Exactly. There's no indication of the who or the why, but I am betting you can tell me how, and that might lead me to one of the other questions I am so interested in uncovering. Could you describe for me how personal travel works - logistically speaking?"
Maggie cleared her throat. "Well, it's pretty simple. The system is basically divided into two parts. The part people generally think about is the freighter."
She spread her hands apart until they were about half a meter. "Every freighter is basically an exothermic chemical engine on one end and an emergency crew compartment and bridge on the other, each separated by a rail. The rail is really nothing more than a series of docking ports for cargo cells."
"Not to sound too much the neophyte, but what's a cargo cell?"
"The cargo cell is the container that holds whatever it is you are stuffing in it, but it's not just a container - it's capable of independent atmospheric descent, including maneuvering and docking. You load it up at the bottom of the gravity well, use a railgun assist for the first stage of the launch, then rely on its own engines for the rest of the ascent. On the other end, a cell has an automated flight control slaved to the orbit's central navigational command. The cell docks onto the waiting freighter, and when all of the contracted cells are docked, the freighter fires off. That's basically it."
Bernard leaned forward. "And the crew?"
"There isn't one, if you mean on the freighter. It's all automated. Not even an A.I."
Maggie nodded. "It's not easy, but technically someone with the right access codes might be able to simply redirect the system. A person goes to sleep in a cryo-tube in a cargo cell fitted for personnel, the system overrides the original destination tag, and by the time they wake they could be a fifty A.U. off where you started. Replace the log tags afterwards, and nobody would even know it had happened."
Bernard shook his head. "I still don't get it. Cargo, sure. But why people? Especially if there's no pattern."
"These people. They're all from Earth?"
"They were. But most people alive are still from Earth, so what difference does that make?"
"It's because most people are from Earth that it matters," Maggie said.
Bernard frowned. "Sorry, you've lost me, Ms. Cao."
"There are millions of people living out off of Earth, but see, that's still just something like a single percent of all humanity," Maggie explained. "DNA rights are crazy expensive to purchase legally, but pop someone already wrapped up like a present in a cryo-tube, and you have genetic diversity and sampling you probably don't have in whatever population you already do have. Maybe you just use them for their eggs or sperm, maybe you use them for research purposes, maybe they just become indentured labor with nobody the wiser that you're even where you are. In the Outer Worlds, even with automation and artificials, labor is very dear."
"You're talking about a slave trade. I've never even heard of this."
Maggie leaned back, tapping a few commands on her terminal. "Sometimes worse. If you're unlucky enough to have been redirected to Europa or Orcus, well, you might just find yourself mommy or daddy to a new clone-line. Not that you'd be likely to ever wake up long enough to get a Mother's Day card."
Bernard's lips tightened, and he stood. "Well, thank you, Ms. Cao. You've been very helpful indeed. I will see to it that your State security files reflect how cooperative you've been." He held out his hand, and Maggie leaned over her desk to grasp it briefly.
"My pleasure," she replied. "By the way, I hope you enjoy the Water Gardens in Mare City on Luna. I've always wanted to go there myself."
He smiled crookedly. "I am sure I will. I haven't had a decent vacation in years."
As he walked out of her office, Maggie picked up her terminal and began tapping onto it. She changed Luna to Triton - Sedna - Orcus. Finishing, she paused, then called up the terminal's mail function.
++++ TO Cameron Jonah, VP of Logistics
++++ FROM Marguerite Cao, Chief Transport Logistics Specialist
++++ TITLE Our Special Visitor
++++ MESSAGE Thank's for the head's up, Cam. The situation's been handled.
Too bad about those wasted reservations at the Water Gardens, Maggie thought. Perhaps that cute intern would be interested in a getaway?
She'd always wanted to see the Water Gardens, after all.