Lady Une reached out without looking and
hit the 'accept call' button as her vidphone chimed. "Une speaking."
< < I'm wasting my time here, > > Wufei's voice snapped.
"Chang?" She glanced up at the screen, startled by the angry expression on his face. Ribbons of multi-coloured static scrolled slowly up the picture. "I take it the negotiations are not going well?"
< < These people couldn't organise a free fuck in an L2 brothel! > > he spat, running one hand over his hair while he loosened his collar with the other, yanking the knot in his tie down. < < I'm amazed this stupid satellite didn't crash and burn a week after they bought it! > >
Une's eyes went wide for a moment, then narrowed. He's acting out of character-- way out of character! -- and those gestures... that's two of the warning signs that mean 'I'm being monitored'.
"I'd advise you to moderate your language," she said coldly, dropping her pen and steepling her fingers in front of her mouth. [Monitoring acknowledged.] "What exactly seems to be the problem?"
< < The problem is that all three managers have objections to different parts of the agreement, and they can't discuss possible compromises without turning it into a violent argument, complete with personal insults and references to things that happened years ago, > > he snorted, throwing himself back in his chair and rubbing at his nose. [Not true.] < < I'm supposed to be here as a negotiator, not a relationship counsellor. > >
"Are you certain the negotiations are beyond hope?" she asked, dropping one hand to her jacket cuff and adjusting the button. [More data available?] "Perhaps if you stayed longer --"
< < No! > > he insisted, throwing up his hands, then tugging at his collar again. [Overlay transmission.] < < This looks like a very long- standing behaviour pattern. I may be qualified to negotiate with rational people, but I can not deal with people like this! > >
"If you're sure..." She leaned over to her computer and typed in a quick command, telling it to scan the vidphone call for an encrypted message, then pretended to check schedules while it worked and she thought.
"I can reroute a shuttle... I've got one coming back from L1 empty... the day after tomorrow, I think. Will that do?" 'DOWNLOAD COMPLETE', her computer flashed.
< < It will have to, > > he sighed, still looking annoyed. < < Honestly, I can't leave fast enough to suit me! > >
"Live with it for another day or so," she told him dryly, and cut the connection.
Well, that part worked, Wufei thought, disconnecting the cables that had plugged his laptop in between the vidphone and the wall connection, allowing it to insert the coded message disguised as transmission static. Now, if the rest of the plan will just go off as well...
In the satellite's communication centre, Jeff Garner was leaning over one of the consoles, watching a small screen.
"Looks like he bought it, sir," the technician sitting next to him said despondently. "Dunno whether that's a good thing, though."
"It's all we can do at the moment," Jeff told him, surreptitiously turning a dial to return the transmitters to their 'normal' inefficient settings. "Maybe later we'll be able to come up with a plan that doesn't risk the kids, but for now..." He shrugged.
Well, that was the clearest connection I could get him, he thought, walking away. Hope it was good enough!
"They're keeping up their side of the bargain, boss," a man grinned, flicking off the screen that he'd used to tap Wufei's call. "Preventers haven't got a clue."
"Something from Wufei?" Sally asked, closing Une's office door behind her.
"Yes," Une said grimly, "and it looks like the situation isn't as simple as we believed."
"He called in, told me the negotiations had fallen through --"
" -- used hand signals to tell me that he was being monitored and lying through his teeth, and sent a data file through encrypted into the static. Does that sound like a simple diplomatic mission to you?" Une smiled humourlessly at her friend and fiddled with a pen, tapping it on the desk in a rhythm that translated to [This agent is in danger].
"No, it sounds more like we really need to read that file," Sally retorted, pushing the visitor's chair around the desk so they could both see the computer screen at once.
Less than a minute after they began reading Wufei's explanation of the situation, Sally leaned across to the vidphone and typed in a number. "I'll call Trowa and Quatre," she explained when Une shot her a questioning glance. "You call Heero. We're going to need them in on this."
"I agree," Une said wryly, quickly scrolling down past a few screens of text, raising an eyebrow at the next section of the file.. "At least Chang has been good enough to come up with a plan..."
* * * * *
"...Yes, thank you, Karl," Relena smiled, holding her mobile to her ear with one hand while she made a note with the other. "I hope he wasn't too put out at having the appointment rescheduled... Really? That's a relief, actually; the discussion is probably going to be unpleasant enough without him feeling insulted before he even walks in the door... I realise that, Karl, but if you ever think up a way to politely tell someone 'stop trying to bribe government officials', I do hope you'll let me know."
"'Please stop trying to bribe government officials'?" Duo suggested under his breath, lowering his book just far enough to raise an eyebrow at her.
Relena stuck her tongue out at him. "Again, thank you, Karl," she said, stifling a giggle. "I'll talk to you tomorrow. Goodbye!"
"If you bat your eyelashes when you say it, it should soften the blow," Duo told her in the most serious voice he could manage, mouth twitching. Relena made as if to snatch up a cushion to threaten him with, then blinked and looked at her phone as it beeped.
"Saved by the voicemail," she told him sternly, pushing the appropriate buttons.
Duo turned his attention back to his book, but he'd read only two paragraphs when Relena interrupted him again. "Duo?" she said quietly, all laughter gone from her voice. "You need to hear this..."
"What?" He looked up at her, feeling a cold, sinking sensation as he saw the concerned look on her face. "Is it Wufei? Has something happened to Wufei?"
"He's all right!" she insisted, sitting down next to him and taking his hand. "He's all right, I promise, but... here, listen." She switched her mobile over to its 'speaker phone' setting, then brought up her voicemail again.
< < This message was recorded at four... twenty-six... P.M., > > a recorded voice said stiffly; then there was a beep, and Heero's voice came on.
< < Relena... hi. I'd call back and talk to you direct if I had time, but I'm sitting on a shuttle that's due to take off in three minutes, so... > > He cleared his throat. < < Something's come up with Wufei's mission, he's called in for backup and Une's sending Trowa and I out to head up the reinforcements. Tell Duo... Make sure you tell him Wufei is fine. The situation there is a lot more complicated than Une had anticipated when she gave him the mission, but I've seen his report and he's on top of things. He's not in... damn, > > he sighed. < < I can't tell you to say that Wufei's not in any danger, because Duo would know it was bullshit. He's not in any immediate danger, though. The opposition is concentrating on remaining covert, they have no reason to believe he's on to them, and taking action against him would be counterproductive. All he has to do is sit tight and act oblivious until we get there. He -- what? > >
Another voice murmured something, but it was too distant to be understandable, then Heero's voice returned.
< < I've got to go, we're about to take off. Quatre's on his way over to give you both the full story. Just make sure you tell Duo first that Wufei is fine! Love you. Bye. > >
< < If you wish to save this message, press-- > >
Relena pushed three buttons in quick succession, cutting off the recorded voice and shutting down her phone. A quick glance sideways showed that Duo was staring straight ahead, face blank, and she winced inwardly. "Duo," she said gently, squeezing his hand, "I--" She wasn't actually sure what she was going to say, beyond 'Don't worry' or something like it-- and doesn't that sound stupid, she scolded herself-- but as it turned out, she never completed the sentence. Duo stood up, tugging his hand out of her grasp, and walked towards the door without saying a word.
"Duo, wait!" She jumped up and ran after him, clutching at his arm. "Duo, they've already left! You just have to trust that Wufei will be all right!"
"Of course 'Fei's going to be all right," he said in a cold, expressionless voice, still walking. "I'm going to back him up."
"No!" She dug in her heels and managed to drag him to a halt. "You're still not well, you can't just charge off-- how do you think you're going to get there?!"
"I'll get there," he said flatly, turning his head to look at her out of glittering, deadly eyes. And if I have to punch you off my arm to get out the door, I will, that look proclaimed.
Relena let go.
"Please, at least wait until Quatre gets here," she begged, watching as Duo pulled on his boots and yanked his coat out of the closet by the front door. "He knows what's going on, he has information you might need!" And he might be able to talk you out of this, she thought miserably. Or else stop you if you won't listen-- oh please let Duo listen to Quatre! If Quatre has to stop him physically, he'll have to fight him. They could both be hurt, and Duo would be that much further from reconciling with Quatre...
Wufei wouldn't exactly be happy, either. How would I explain this to him? 'Sorry Wufei, I let Duo just walk out the door and try to get himself killed'?
Totally ignoring her, Duo tugged his coat straight and opened the door--
--revealing Quatre on the mat, hand raised to knock.
"Oh! Hello, Duo, what's-- ah. You know already," he observed, recovering from the surprise.
"Move," Duo said curtly, glaring, and took a step forward.
Relena was expecting Quatre's normal sweet, reasonable tone, or perhaps the calm, logical voice she'd seen him use on politicians and bureaucrats. She was not expecting what he actually did.
"Maxwell, this is not the time to go Shinigami on us," he snapped, eyes narrowing as his face abruptly hardened. "Your one objective at this point should be to remain in a place of safety and continue your recovery, so that Chang is not distracted and endangered by worrying about you!"
Duo jerked and stepped back, mouth twitching as his expressionless mask cracked, and Quatre followed him inside, closing the door behind him. "There is nobody Wufei would rather have backing him up than you, if you were mission ready," he continued a little less harshly. "You're not. You know that."
They stared at each other for a long moment, fists clenched, neither backing down; then Duo seemed to crumple in on himself, sagging, and Quatre relaxed. "I'm sorry, Duo," he said sincerely, taking a slow half-step forwards and reaching out, ready to pull back if Duo pushed him away. "Truly, I'm sorry, and if I thought it would work I'd fly you there myself..."
"I want to be with him," Duo whispered, wiping at the tears beginning to form in his eyes. "I don't want to lose him again... I can't..."
"I know. I know," Quatre whispered, hugging the braided teen carefully and gently steering him away from the door. "Come and sit down, all right? I'll explain the plan so you can see for yourself how it's going to work. It's Wufei's plan, anyway, so you know it's good!" he added wryly.
"'Fei always puts himself in the most danger, you know that!" Duo nearly wailed.
"You might be surprised," Quatre told him, managing a small, but genuine smile. "He knows he has you waiting for him, after all. Besides," he added, "Une and I made a couple of... modifications he doesn't know about yet. Just in case..."
* * * * *
That night, Relena slept with Duo again, with Quatre tucked up on the spare futon on the bedroom floor next to them.
Duo lay awake all night, staring out the window between the half-open curtains. He could pick out orbiting satellites as they sailed past, moving against the backdrop of stars, and he followed each one with his eyes until it passed out of view, wondering if that one had Wufei on board.
* * * * *
"How's it going?"
"Master Trowa!" Rashid turned away from the half-gutted toilet cubicle and pushed his protective glasses up onto his forehead. "The work is going well. We'll be finished well before turnover, and there'll be no way for anyone to tell that this is anything other than what we say it is."
"Excellent." Trowa took a couple of steps away from the cubicle as a shower of sparks from the cutting gear skittered out into the corridor, and lifted a small, short-range com to his mouth. "Tariq, this is Barton. How's it going in there?"
< < Very well, Master Trowa, > > a cheerful voice came back. < < We're not even bored yet. Faheed owes me thirty-seven thousand matches and a rock, though. > >
< < We got a little creative with our bets, about an hour ago. He won back the twenty-six dancing girls and fifteen tons of sand, but I've still got the rock. > > Tariq's voice was perfectly serious, except for what could have been either a faint chuckle or interference from the cutting gear.
"I hope it's a good rock, then," Trowa smiled. "Barton out."
Winner Enterprises Heavy Cargo Shuttle JVX-7930 continued on at maximum acceleration, racing out well past its intended target. Far behind, an official Preventers shuttle was heading for L1 at a more sedate pace. Both had the same final destination in mind, but it was essential to make sure that nobody would connect one craft with the other, and so they would arrive at satellite B-7699 from two widely different directions.
* * * * *
The next day seemed to crawl by.
This would be a lot easier to take if I had something to do, Duo thought miserably, curled up in a corner of the sofa staring out the window. The weather outside matched his mood; grey and dreary, with dirty-looking clouds hanging low over the city. Relena and Quatre both have work to take care of, stuff to talk to their offices about... stuff to distract them, though I know they're worried, too. I could do some housework, I guess, but that would just mean I was moving around while worrying instead of sitting still and worrying. I can't even hope 'Fei will get a call through; he can't take the chance in case we gave something away to the jerks listening in. Besides, it'd feel awful, talking to him, but not being able to be truthful and knowing he couldn't be truthful, either.
Duo had never been particularly religious or devout. He'd seen too many things happen to good people, too young, to really believe in the loving, gentle God that Father Maxwell and Sister Helen had tried to teach him about. When he needed 'spiritual' comfort, he talked to them, not to the God he felt had failed them. And yet... for the first time in years, he found himself praying.
* * * * *
< < 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  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...
 EVA: Extra-Vehicular Activity
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