+ Chapter 10 (cont)
* * * * *
Late that afternoon (according to the station's clocks, which were set
behind the time zone he was used to), Wufei got back to his room and dropped
heavily into a chair.
It's only seven, here,
but according to my body it's about four A.M., he thought, looking
longingly at the bed. If I sleep now, I won't adjust... and I still
have work to do.
The first thing he did was
to pull a small, flat metal case out of an inner pocket of his jacket
and press his thumb onto a slightly recessed spot. The detector/jammer
checked his thumb print, decided he was authorised to use it, extended
a tiny aerial and thought for a while; then it gave a satisfied beep and
blinked a green light at him. No listening devices. Good. Has anyone
been in here while I was gone?
If they had been, he couldn't
see any signs that they'd touched anything or searched his luggage, and
his laptop's security program informed him that there had been no attempts
to access it since he'd shut it down that morning.
Either they're being cautious,
or I'm jumping at shadows... Wufei shrugged to himself, typed in an
instruction for his laptop to contact the bugs and download their memories,
and sat back to wait, absent-mindedly kneading and flexing the muscles
in his right arm. I'd say they're being cautious. The preliminary talks
yesterday went well, but today I got the runaround. Very polite, of course,
but I didn't get to speak to anyone during all those tours and demonstrations,
and all my guides seemed very nervous. I think they showed me everything
on the station a visitor could possibly find interesting, and quite a
few things that definitely aren't. I could have insisted on continuing
the talks, of course, but it made sense to find out exactly what's going
on here first.
Download complete, the laptop
flashed up a menu, listing each bug and how much activity it had recorded
since being planted; Wufei sighed, and started working his way through.
The first few had nothing
interesting on them, unless you were the sort of person who'd be fascinated
by hearing technicians running through checklists and firing up a zero-gravity
smelter for a trial run. Wufei just felt thankful that the bugs' software
edited out long periods when nothing happened, so he didn't have
to, and moved on. The next one, planted in a small conference room, was
what he was after.
A door opened and closed,
and there were scuffing sounds as three or four people entered the room.
< < Do you think he's
getting suspicious? > > a man said in low tones.
If I wasn't before, I would
be now! Wufei sat up and listened intently.
< < It's hard to say.
I can't read his expressions. He's either blank- faced or smiling politely
all the time, > > a woman answered.
< < That's worrying.
If he's taking the trouble to conceal his reactions from us --
< < No, that's just
because he's traditional Chinese, I think, > > another man cut in.
< < Did you ever go to L5 before it blew? They were all like that.
Showing too much emotion to strangers is rude, or shameful, or something.
< < So how do we find
out if he's catching on? > > the woman sighed.
< < Wait for the bombshell
to drop? Ask? > >
< < I said we
should've refused to start negotiations, > > the first man growled.
< < And the Preventers
would have known right away there was something wrong, > > the second
man snapped back. < < Our only chance is if we can walk this guy
around by the hand, keep him from seeing anything, and just not sign the
agreement. > >
< < And how do we explain
that? > >
< < We act like we can't
agree among ourselves, and we can't sign unless we're unanimously agreed
on the terms. We bicker. We snipe at each other. We bring up old arguments
and personal insults. > >
< < It'll never work
-- > >
< < It has to
work! > > the woman interrupted shrilly. < < You know what'll
happen if we don't make it work! > >
< < Belle, calm down.
Panicking won't -- > > the second man started.
< < It's all right for
you! You don't have any children! > >
< < Oh, so that means
I won't care if anything happens to yours? > > He laughed bitterly.
< < Shit, Belle, you've got a high opinion of me, don't you? >
< < ...I'm sorry. I
didn't mean... I'm sorry. > > There was a quiet sob.
< < Look, we're all
wound a bit tight, > > the first man said quietly. < < We're
not going to get any further discussing this now. You're right, Jeff;
I certainly can't come up with a better plan, and Belle's right that we've
got to make it work. > >
< < I wish we could
just tell the truth and ask for help, > > Belle sniffed. < <
We're never going to get clear this way... > >
< < They wouldn't get
here in time. > >
They said a few more words,
quiet, hopeless-sounding farewells; then the door opened and closed again,
and the recording ended. I don't think I really need to play any more
recordings, Wufei mused, sitting back and staring through his laptop
screen as he thought. I didn't manage to get any bugs into the area
I think is being used by the smugglers, anyway...
thought I recognised those voices; Jeff Garner, Belle Anderson,
and the other one sounded like Mitch Hooper. The three co-owners and managers
of this station. I think tomorrow's meeeting is going to be very interesting.
It's a good thing this station's
still a small enough concern that the owners do all the admin work,
Wufei thought as he sat down at the table. If they had assistant managers
and secretaries sitting in on the negotiations, I wouldn't know who I
could trust -- and insisting on a private meeting would tip off
the smugglers that something was up.
"Well, we spent some
time discussing the proposed agreement yesterday, Preventer Chang,"
Hooper said, fiddling with the papers in front of him, "and we, uh,
we have a few problems with it."
"I don't like the search-and-seizure
provisions," Anderson said, hands clenched tightly together in her
lap. "I think our employees will see it as an invasion of privacy."
"Oh, come on, Belle,"
Garner snorted. "Anyone who objects probably has something to hide.
I think it's reasonable."
"Is that supposed to
imply something about me?!"
"Well, now that you mention
it," he said smugly, "there was that little incident on L2 --
There was a quiet beep from
Wufei's direction, and they looked around to see him laying a small silvery
object on the table. "You're surprisingly good actors," he said
calmly, "but we're not being bugged, so you can stop now. I actually
expected listening devices, which would have made things more difficult,
but I suppose the smugglers don't want to risk me finding bugs and getting
Anderson paled, one hand pressing
over her mouth, and the two men swallowed. "I, I don't know what
you mean," Hooper said weakly. Wufei didn't answer; he just hit a
key on his laptop and sat back, looking at them.
< < Do you think he's
getting suspicious? > >
< < It's hard to say.
I can't read his expressions -- > >
"Oh god. You bugged us.
You bastard," Garner groaned, sagging forward in his chair.
< < That's worrying.
If -- > >
"Shut it off," Hooper
snapped, one hand going out to Anderson's shaking shoulder.
Wufei turned off the recording,
and there was an uncomfortable pause. "What sort of threats have
they made?" he asked eventually.
Anderson sobbed. "My daughters, Mitch's son, all our employees' children...
nearly forty in all. Do you have any idea what you've done?! When
they find out -- "
"I've done nothing yet,"
Wufei interrupted firmly. "I'm hardly going to walk out onto the
docks and announce 'the jig is up', and I doubt you're stupid enough to
start gloating about how the Preventers are going to solve all your problems
for you. The smugglers will find out nothing until we are ready
to do something about them. Now. I realise that your children have been
threatened, but what exactly did they say? Are some of them being held
Garner sighed and rubbed at
his forehead, not looking up. "When we started up this place, we
were aware of the sort of dangers a small space station can hold for children.
We're all colony-bred, Belle and Mitch have children, and I --
well, the reason I don't have children is because my wife was on a rescue
squad that went looking for a missing child during a pressure-loss emergency
in an asteroid mining dome. Turned out the boy was safe, sitting in one
of his favourite hiding places trying to make his parents worry, but the
squad stayed in the danger zone trying to find him, and..." He waved
his hand dismissively, mouth trembling for a moment, and cleared his throat.
"Anyway. We made it a rule that every child under fifteen years old
has to wear a locator bracelet or necklace. They can be tracked in an
emergency, and alarms go off if they wander into a dangerous area. More
alarms go off if a locator comes off or stops working. The whole idea
was supposed to keep the kids safe!"
"The smugglers hacked
into the locator system," Hooper said dully, still rubbing Anderson's
shoulder. "The first thing we knew about it was when they turned
up and told us they wanted free run of our docks. They know where all
the children are, all the time; they'll know if we try to move them off
station, or gather them together to guard them. They say they have people
among our employees, but we don't know if that's true; if it is, we can't
set up something to protect the kids without the smugglers finding out
before we even start, anyway. And if we don't do what they want, or we
try to contact anyone for help," he took a deep, shaky breath, "they
say they'll grab every child they can reach and take off before help can
get here, and we'll never see our children again. If they're prevented
from reaching the kids, they'll shoot everyone in sight. And if there's
not enough people in sight to make it worth their while, then whatever
ships they have here at the time will take off without uncoupling, which
will explosively decompress our docks and probably the segment on either
side as well." He grimaced. "The bastard who presented this
to us grinned and said, 'You can rat on us if you really want to, but
we'll make damn sure you regret it'."
"The only reason you're
here is because the Preventers contacted us, not the other way around,"
Anderson sniffed, "and Jeff convinced them that refusing to let you
in would be more suspicious than refusing to sign an agreement. We swore
we wouldn't let you find out..."
Wufei thought for a moment,
then nodded decisively. "The problems with your communications systems,
are they real or manufactured?"
"Uh -- manufactured,"
Garner said, looking up. "They monitor our transmissions, and they
made it very clear that they didn't want us talking too much to other
people, so we figured the best way to keep communication to a minimum
was to detune our transmitters, so we get a lot of static, and cut the
power totally every so often. The equipment would work fine if we just
"Good," Wufei said,
sitting forwards. "In that case, here's what I propose to do..."
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