Rebuilding + Chapter 11 (cont)

* * * * *

< < Home Base, this is heavy cargo JVX-7930 inbound from the Belt. We have a minor situation here, over. > >

Winner Enterprises had its own communications centre to coordinate and communicate with its huge fleet of shuttles and spaceships, bigger than the long-gone American and Russian space agencies had ever dreamed of being. Dozens of controllers pricked up their ears as they heard the call sign; they'd been told not to respond to that shuttle, and the reason why was a secret for now, but that didn't keep them from being curious.

Sitting at one of the consoles, Ninke Assink adjusted his borrowed headset and switched the microphone on. "JVX-7930 heavy, this is Home Base. What seems to be the problem?"

< < We just ran the routine tests before re-entry, Home Base, and the control surfaces on our port wing are not responding properly. We're fine so long as we stay out here, but if we go into the atmosphere like this, we're in trouble. > >

"Do you require assistance, JVX-7930 heavy?"

< < Negative, Home Base, not at this point. We're running diagnostic checks now, and we believe we can rectify the situation ourselves. Could you advise us of the closest docking facility that's rated to handle ships of our type? > >

"Wait one." Ninke switched his microphone off for a few seconds, then back on, and began reading from the piece of paper that had been in front of him all along. "JVX-7930 heavy, Resource Satellite B-7699 is the closest capable facility--" it was, too; the shuttle's course had been planned very carefully, "--but they don't have a pressurised dock big enough to take you in. Is that a problem?"

< < Negative, Home Base, we do not require a pressurised dock. Expected repairs do not involve EVA [1] tasks. > >

"In that case, JVX-7930 heavy, recommend that you contact B-7699 direct and request docking clearance. Keep us advised. Home Base out."

< < Much appreciated, Home Base. Heavy cargo JVX-7930 out. > >

Ninke switched off his microphone again and leaned back in his chair, looking up at the head of communications for WEI. "Well?"

"Perfectly done," she told him, smiling. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were one of our operators. Ever considered a career change?"

* * * * *

< < Resource satellite B-7699, this is Winner Enterprises heavy cargo JVX-7930 requesting docking clearance. We have a problem with our atmospheric control surfaces that we need to fix, over. > >

"Stall them!" Belle Anderson hissed, waving frantically at the officer on communications duty with her free hand; the other hand held a phone handset pressed to her chest to muffle the sound. "What? I can't--"

Belle gestured pointedly at the phone, then pointed to a particular ship on the schematic that showed at a glance which docking slots were filled. The communications officer paled, swallowed and turned back to his console. "Uh, JVX-7930, please wait... we, uh, we just need to check our available dock spaces against your specs..." Belle turned away, tuning him out as she lifted the phone to her ear again. "They've declared a control systems problem," she whispered harshly. "You know what that means as well as I do. We cannot legally refuse to let them dock unless we are physically incapable of taking them! The most we can do is stall them for half an hour or so while we move ships around to 'free up a suitable spot'."

< < I don't like this, > > the smuggler on the other end of the line said pointedly. < < It's awfully convenient, them having an emergency and coming in unscheduled right before that Preventers shuttle arrives. > >

"Coincidences do happen!" Belle insisted. "You've been monitoring our communications, and for all I know you had us bugged while we were talking to Chang. You know we haven't said a damn thing to anyone! Besides, I don't call six hours 'right before' the Preventers. They'll probably finish their repairs and leave before the next shuttle comes in."

< < ...All right, > > the smuggler said slowly. < < Let them dock, but put them in a slot where I can see them from my ship. I want line- of-sight in case they try anything. And I want to get one of my men onto that ship to look it over. You think of a good excuse. Just remember... we can rip out the side of your station just by hitting the accelerator before we unlock the docking clamps. > >

"We know," she snarled. "You've made that very clear!"

There was a chuckle on the other end of the line, then the phone went dead. Belle hung up, letting her breath out in a defeated sigh, and then nodded to the communications officer, pointing to an empty spot on the dock schematic.

"JVX-7930, sorry for the delay," he said nervously. "You can dock at slot ten; I'm lighting it up for you now. Uh, that's an external clamp slot with personnel access to the station, but no cargo access. Please confirm that this meets your needs."

< < Not a problem, B-7699, > > came a cheerful reply. < < We just need somewhere to park while we shut down some systems and draw straws to see who has to crawl about in the wiring access ducts. Er... what's your policy concerning deck leave for visiting crews? > >

"That's one of the things we make money on, JVX-7930," the officer said, glancing at Belle for guidance; she waved for him to continue. "We've got some good restaurants and a couple of bars..."

< < Sounds good! We're ferrying a shift of miners back from the asteroids, you see, and they're not very happy about having to delay the start of their holidays. We'll turn them loose to have a couple of good meals, but tell your security people they don't have to worry about drunk-and-disorderly conduct. Most of 'em are Muslims; they don't drink. > >

"That'll be a nice change," he replied, with a forced laugh, looking up again as Belle handed him a scribbled note. "Er... I'm afraid we have to request access to your ship for a quick customs inspection. There's been... rumours of smugglers in the area," he added, barely managing to keep the bitterness on his face out of his voice.

< < You're welcome to check us out, B-7699. We've got nothing to be ashamed of. Starting our approach now. > >

"B-7699 out," the officer finished, then switched off his microphone and frowned. "That's a little odd."

"What, the fact that we have to clear it with the smugglers before we can let a damaged ship dock?" Belle asked sourly, turning to leave. "No... the way he phrased that. Usually people say they have nothing to hide."

She shrugged, touching the pressure pad to open the door. "So he's got a clean conscience as well as a clean ship." Or he didn't feel like lying. That ship's definitely got something to hide... from the smugglers! God, I hope this works.

It's better than sitting here waiting for the smugglers to go away on their own. And maybe it's a good omen that those bastards told me to dock the shuttle where Chang wants it...

* * * * *

"All right, ETA six hours and counting," Heero told the assembled Preventers in the second shuttle. "I'm taking A group; Assink, you have B group; McKenzie, you've got C. You all know your objectives, you all know your targets, and you know everything we do about the opposition. For now, stand down, get some sleep if you want it, and hold yourselves ready for action."

"YES, SIR!" they chorused.

* * * * *

"Welcome aboard," the fez-wearing man said, sticking out his hand. "I'm Auda; I get to show you around. Where do you need to check?"

"I'm Mitch," Hooper told him, shaking hands. "We just need to see your manifest, have a quick look around the living areas, and check your cargo hold. Ah... you can access the cargo hold from the personnel area, can't you?"

"Yeah, but it's pretty full," Auda shrugged. "Lots of big containers of rock. You won't be able to get in very far."

"That's OK. We just need to pop a couple of containers as a random check. This inspection isn't much more than a formality." Mitch saw the curious look Auda shot at the two men trailing him, but didn't introduce them. He wouldn't have minded introducing his assistant, but that would have meant he had to introduce the smuggler as well, and he didn't think he could do that with a straight face. 'Hi, here's one of the guys you've come to trash!'

Besides, he hadn't bothered to ask the man's name.

A loud clang and a burst of swearing came from a side corridor as they passed it, and the smuggler jerked around to peer suspiciously towards the noise. "What's that?"

"Oh, that's just--"

"Allah shield and protect us, how many more things are going to go wrong with this accursed ship before we manage to land it?!" an angry voice yelled. "And why am I stuck fixing a toilet?! I'm an engineer, not a plumber!"

"Engineers are supposed to fix things!" Auda called back.

"I am an electrical engineer!"

"You also lost the toss!"

"And I am convinced you rigged it!" A huge man with a black beard and pointy hair crawled out of the door and stood up, grimacing as he stretched and his back cracked. Behind him, a half-disassembled toilet and assorted tools were spread over the cubicle floor, and an open wall panel had loose wires dangling out of it.

"I used your coin. Is it my fault that luck was not with you?" Auda chuckled and led the way further into the ship. "Here is our cargo manifest," he continued, pulling a datapad out of his pocket and passing it to Mitch after opening the right file. "All ore, as you can see." He quickly typed a code into the keypad controlling the airlock door into the hold, and a green light blinked to show that there was air on the other side before it opened.

On the other side, there was only a narrow corridor left empty between walls of cargo containers stretching from floor to ceiling. "Take your pick," Auda said, waving at them. "They are stacked so that their inspection hatches are accessible from this side."

The three 'inspectors' opened a few containers at random, confirming that there was nothing in there except chunks of rock, before Mitch nodded to their guide. "That's fine, thanks. If we could just have a quick look through the rest of the ship, we'll leave you in peace."

"Oh, don't worry. As far as I'm concerned, you can take as long as you like!" Auda grinned, opening the hatch again. "If I am with you, nobody will ask me to climb into the wiring access hatches to help Malik track down the problem with the control systems. He can do it just as well as I can, if not better, but he will want to ask me because I am smaller than he is. It is my curse," he sighed theatrically. "Just because I fit does not mean I want to spend time in cramped spaces."

The rest of the inspection went quickly, largely because the smugglers' representative had already made up his mind that there was nothing to fear from this shuttle and its crew. The fact that nobody was at all nervous around the inspection party had a lot to do with his decision.

Rashid came to stand beside Auda as he waved goodbye, wiping his hands on a rag. "At least one of them must be a smuggler," he rumbled quietly.

"The little weasel-faced one," Auda replied, still smiling after the departing men. "The other two were just going through the motions. He started out suspicious, but got bored quickly. After all," he chuckled, turning away from the hatch and walking down the corridor, "what raiding party would be doing maintenance on a toilet in enemy-held territory?"

"A very good raiding party," Rashid said, smiling grimly. They walked back to the toilet cubicle, and Rashid picked up a wrench and banged three times on the inside wall. "The coast is clear," he called softly.

There was a series of snapping noises and the wall shivered as the clips that had held it in place were undone from the other side; then it was lifted to one side, and Faheed peeked out. "They bought it?"

"Easily, thanks to Auda's celebrated impersonation of a lazy man," Rashid told him. "He does it so well, you might actually believe he isn't acting..."


Faheed laughed, stepping aside so that Rashid could climb through the newly-constructed secret door. "Well, we're on schedule so far. Just under six hours, yes?"

Rashid nodded, starting to lever the panel back into place. "Remember, do not contact us before it is time to execute the plan unless there is an emergency," he warned Auda. "They probably cannot tap our short range communicators, but we--"

"--must not take the chance, I know," Auda sighed, rolling his eyes.

"Just making sure." The wall thumped back into place and was fastened tight, sealing off the short passage that led to the cargo bay, giving access to the space behind the wall of ore containers, where Rashid went over the plan one last time with Faheed and Tariq, in the shadow of three space Leos .

* * * * *

"I heard that a shuttle has arrived," Wufei said brusquely, stalking into the communications centre. "Dare I hope that my transportation has arrived early?"

"Sorry, no," Jeff snorted, waving at the dock schematic. "You still have about six hours to wait; our new arrival is a WEI heavy cargo shuttle that's having a minor systems problem."

"Ah," Wufei said flatly. "I see."

I expected a Preventers shuttle, disguised, he thought, walking out again and heading for the public area of the station. Une must have borrowed this one from Quatre... And I see that's not all she borrowed, he added, walking past three men who were studying a map of the station and discussing where to eat. I recognise them; they're Mangaunacs!

I wonder what other changes have been made to the plan? At least this is a good change... and I suppose they'll find some way to let me know if there have been any major alterations...


[1] EVA: Extra-Vehicular Activity  

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