It didn't contain anything mechanical, as it had some heavy duty cooling systems, nor could it be chemical, as the light blue display on the side lacked any relevant read-outs besides temperature. Chemical packages usually required careful monitoring, instantly readable to ensure safety.
He leaned to the side, resting his shoulder on the open hatch, rolling a datastick through his fingers.
He was playing a game, with a only a few simple rules: every time he moved a 'don't ask, don't look' package he would do the exact opposite: ask himself what it could be and look if he was right.
There was one thing he had to take into account: Brahma Innovations, his contractor. Even though the company's research encompassed a dozen or so fields, they specialized in medical, genetic and biological applications. Illegal implants? Genetically altered animals? Specially engineered bodyparts?
He kept pondering, keeping his mind occupied, occasionally smiling at what he came up with.
Two short bleeps echoed through the ship, reminding him he would arrive at his destination in five minutes. He let out a sigh, stepped forward and placed the datastick in one of the slots underneath the screen. It flickered on and off a few times before settling on 'OPEN'. The locks inside moved with a firm, metallic click and he slowly opened the container, vapour enveloping his face.
He whiffed with a satisfied smirk, his eyes going over an assortment of organs and limbs, all appearing well preserved and particularly shiny in the bright blue light cast by the cooling apparatus underneath. They were probably meant for wealthy fetishists, crime lords with missing limbs or doctors of the unprofessional kind. Feeling satisfied with his win he closed the lid, removed the stick and paced to the cockpit.
Control panels and holographic displays sprung to life as he sat down on the pilot's seat, dimming all lights to an orange hue. His hands danced from left to right, initiating all pre-land checks; approach vector, relative speed, shielding priorities. Even though his new navcom would make sure everything was fine, he was more comfortable doing it all himself. Call it a habit, picked up along the way.
With a noticeable tremble the ship jumped out of FTL travel, immediately slowing down for the final approach.
His destination came into view: Hipparchus, a terrestrial planet not unlike Earth, though slightly smaller and shrouded in the dark red nebula covering this sector.
He waited for the light to catch up to his ship, counting down in his head and opened a channel:
"Hipparchus Control, this is Rho J-dash-17B, requesting clearance to land." He steered his ship closer to a group of freighters, slowing to a halt. They were taking an unusually long time to answer, but judging from the few dozen or so ships orbiting the planet he wasn't the only one waiting for a response.
"Odd." He said to himself as he positioned himself underneath one of the larger vessels.
"I repeat: control, this is Rho J-dash-17B, requesting clea..."
"Eh... thi-... archus Control, sorry... -lay, we're expe-...-cing technical difficulties... you ha- ...clearance... land." Control responded, the voice riddled with static, barely discernible.
Usually his request would be handled instantly by a virtual intelligence which tracked hundreds of ships at any given moment, not some forty-something human operator.
"Not a problem, J17 out." He pushed the controls forward, descending into the red clouds.
Something had them rattled.
Fresh air filled his lungs as he breathed in deeply, air he had missed for three days. The loading ramp touched down on the landing pad and he casually walked out of his ship. Two men approached, not the huge security guards he would usually meet, but scientists, doctors probably. They met halfway, he greeted them and stopped for a moment to stretch his back. Dark silhouettes with hundreds of brightly lit windows broke up the horizon; huge, smooth skyscrapers lit up by the rising sun. He took in all the air he could, closed his eyes and relaxed his muscles. From up here he could make out the sound of music coming from the clubs in the distance, he hummed along, tilting his head up, smiling.
"Name?" A firm female voice came from his right.
He turned around to see a short and slightly overweight woman. To be honest he had expected a prettier face to go along with her British accent. Her fancy digital glasses slightly remedied that though, intriguing as they were. "You already know my name." He answered.
"Vocal recognition, full name please?" She didn't seem particularly happy with his wit.
She looked at him quizzically, updates being added constantly to the screens in front of her eyes. The play of colours and shapes far more interesting than this silly routine.
"Were the cryo containers at any time opened, shut down or otherwise compromised?" Again she fired off a question, by now Joe had likened her to a dog: a tiny, fat Chihuahua, constantly scratching the door and squealing every time something moved past it. He chuckled at the thought.
"Err... No." He collected himself, not blinking, looking away, fiddling around or allowing any part of his body to move. All was well, they hadn't been opened. He gazed into her eyes, for added effect. For a moment she was sizing him up, raising her chin in an effort to appear more intimidating. It didn't work.
"Hm." She pushed on the right side of her glasses, one by one all the icons turned green and he could make out a blinking 'Clear'. She didn't trust him, they never trusted him, perhaps for good reason. But computers never lied. He did, though.
"Your payment has been transferred to your account, good day." It took her considerable effort to utter those words. And with that she left, following the other two men off the deck into the adjacent tower.
His first actual talk in days, a few sentences and a nice two grand, not bad. He closed the ramp using his remote and headed to the nearest bar.
Smoke. Thick, ashy cigarette smoke with a slight hint of alcohol, that's the first thing Joe noticed when he entered 'Caroline's'. He sat down next to the bar and lit one up himself, signaling the bartender.
"Hi, I'd like... scotch."
"Smooth run, pilot?" The elderly man asked, placing his order in front of him.
"Sure thing, Caroline." Joe answered, trading his nicotine for the alcohol.
The bartender laughed, Biden held up his drink, toasting and noticed he was starting to feel a little strained now that he'd finally sat down. He rubbed his eyes, blaming it on a slight jetlag, or maybe a lack of exercise.
"Where're you from, pilot?" A different voice came from behind; a clear, steady drone that immediately caught his attention. He looked to his left and was immediately greeted by a United Systems Intelligence ID, belonging to a Walt Conroy. Joe lay down his cigarette and turned around, Walt sitting down right next to him, his associate taking a seat by the table to Joe's left.
"I'm Walt Conroy, UnSys Intelligence Division, and this is my partner Rob Nilson."
Joe was taken aback by the sudden appearance of two agents, though kept his cool, leaning back. He accounted it to the lack of courtesy on Conroy's part. Despite the age difference, these two men looked remarkably alike: both wore a gray government issue suit, red government issue tie and sported a dark government issue haircut. They didn't make an effort to cover up what they were doing.
"So I've noticed. Joe Biden... Herschel, I came from Herschel."
"Did you make any stops along the way?" Walt continued while Rob took notes, keeping his eye on Joe.
"One, at Junction 11, why are you asking?"
"I'm sure you've noticed Hipparchus' Flight Control being... tied up today. There's been an attack: hackers broke into their system in an attempt to disrupt the flow of traffic. We think they might've tried to stop a ship or ships from landing or maybe... open a window for someone to land."
"An attack? By who?"
"I'm afraid that's information I can't disclose." Government issue talk for: we don't know. Joe had expected a power failure at the most, not a full scale attack. Though he felt relieved to know the two suits weren't there specifically for him. He drank his scotch to that.
"So, what do you want from me?"
"We'd like to know what you were carrying."
Joe put down his glass and glanced at Conroy and Nilson, both waiting in subdued anticipation. He noticed the sidearm tucked under Nilson's shoulder: A SIG MR-9, probably holding a clip of sixteen jacketed hollow points... government issue.
"... Alright." Joe pulled out his PDA from his back pocket, danced over the screen with his finger and synched it with Walt's. "Here's my license, registration, contract, the whole nine yards."
"Hm, stem cells for Brahma," Walt checked the files, "must pay well."
"It should all be fine." Joe said, not responding to Walt's claim.
"And it probably is. Well," the agent rose from his seat, beckoning his partner, "thank you for your cooperation, that's all we need for now." Walt reached into his coat and handed Joe a business card. An actual, physical business card.
"Call me if you hear anything."
Biden took it, surprised at Walt's low-tech solution.
Joe held of a relieved sigh until the door closed behind them. This run turned out to be more interesting than he had thought. The bartender filled his glass: "On the house."
"Heh, thanks." He gladly took it and began his usual pondering. There were three organisations who could pull such off such a stunt. Three that he knew of, at least. Though he didn't think any of them would have any business here. Hipparchus wasn't a Fringeworld, it was tightly secured, or so he'd thought, and well within UnSys space. Then again he had only made runs for two of them, so it wasn't like he knew all the ins and outs. Perhaps he shouldn't worry about it.
"You know, Hipparchus wasn't the only world hit today." The bartender spoke.
"Really? How do you know?"
"This morning my wife had a couple of jockeys here complaining about a complete jam around Messier. Later on a few were talking about Keppler having the same problem."
"The plot thickens..." Joe replied, finding a hint of irony in his previous stress. This was a lot bigger than body parts on ice.
"Those agents will have a tough time finding out who made that happen."
"Heh, I'll drink to that."
Two beeps awoke Joe from his daydreaming. He yawned loudly, cracked his neck and checked the time. He was still thirty minutes ahead of schedule, something he took great pleasure in. To celebrate he would make himself a nice cup of coffee, so he got up and went for his bunk.
"Com, play music... continue playlist, volume seventy percent." As he mixed hot water with instant coffee a fast beat broke loose. He stirred his drink, threw the plastic spoon away and moved to the cargo hold, his shoulders and hips moving to the rhythm
"...You will be King of the Staaahaarrrss." Joe sang along, not that he actually could, but since no one was around he did it anyway.
"... you will give me three and a half graahaaand!!" He was referring to the two containers. Joe set his coffee down and started a more elaborate dance routine. Sadly though these were exactly the same containers as his last run, temperatures and locks included, so playing his game was time wasted.
Still, now there were two of them, which meant "One hundred and seventy five percent paaahaaay."
But that wasn't the only thing that made him happy, his destination was different as well: a lone outpost orbiting an icy wasteland of a planet. Apparently Brahma didn't take last week's incident lightly, so now they sent their meat to more remote locations.
The run was longer, but it meant no traffic, no waiting and no suits. It was likely he would have to deal with some other frigid Chihuahua, but he honestly didn't mind.
The ship shook as it jumped out of FTL.
"Oh yes!" And he walked back to the cockpit, forgetting his coffee. He sat down, glanced at the sensors, got his bearings and set off towards the station.
It was only a bright speck at first but as he approached it, it slowly became a medium sized research outpost. Its design was old, decades maybe and it was originally towed here by UnSys to determine whether mining operations on the planet below were viable. A fruitless venture seeing how Brahma had retrofitted it for other uses. Uses Joe probably wouldn't ask about after he would board it.
"Station Control, this is Rho-J17B, requesting permission to dock." Joe opened up a channel, already initiating docking procedures, his voice sounding particularly pleased for a mere hail.
He fired reverse thrusters, slowing the ship and aligning it to the station's docking port. Just a few degrees to his left and he was ready to disembark. All he needed now was a response, which he should've gotten by now. He held his breath for a moment, music still playing. His eyes darted around the station's hull. Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary.
"You will be king of the staaahaaars!!!"
"You're joking..." he sighed, "contr..." A bright, blinding glow came from his left. Before he could realise what was happening the cockpit was engulfed in an explosion ripping through the station. The shockwave threw Joe out of his seat and he slammed headfirst into the bulkhead.