Rebuilding + Chapter 10 (cont)

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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...

I 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.

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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 suspicious."

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. "You bastard..."

< < 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.

"The children," 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 hostage?"

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 let it."

"Good," Wufei said, sitting forwards. "In that case, here's what I propose to do..."

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