Nearly half an hour after the
Winner Enterprises shuttle had docked, a short, stocky man came out of the
personnel hatch, stamping hard enough to raise echoes and muttering Arabic
curses under his breath. Powdery white dust was smudged in several places across
his skin and clothing, and he had a tangle of multicoloured wires clutched in
one large fist.
"Excuse me!" he called, veering towards a man who was loitering against the wall of the docking area, apparently having nothing better to do than stand around watching who went in and out of the shuttle.
"Y-yeah? What?" the man stuttered, looking uncomfortable. Several other men, mostly large and with suspicious bulges in their clothing, looked up from what they were doing and began to drift closer.
"This satellite has a repairs and parts facility, yes?" the dusty man asked brusquely. "Where is it? Is it well stocked?"
"Uh... segment C, on the dock level," the other answered, relaxing slightly and pointing. "Two segments that way. There's a big sign, you can't miss it."
"My thanks." The dusty man nodded quickly and walked off. Behind him, the loiterer discreetly waved most of the other men back to their posts, but beckoned one closer.
"Follow him, see what's up and report back," he said quietly.
Inside the shuttle, Jamal sagged in his chair, waving weakly at the screen in front of him. The security camera feed from just inside the shuttle hatch was of excellent quality, and right now was showing one of the loitering man's friends hitching his various illegal and concealed weapons into more comfortable positions.
"What does Malik think he's doing?" Jamal sputtered. "He is only supposed to be establishing our excuse for staying here, not approaching one of the known smugglers and nearly triggering their occupational paranoia!"
"That was well done," Auda said cheerfully, peering at the screen.
"We do not need to establish our excuse with the station personnel, Jamal," Auda explained patiently. "We need to establish it with the smugglers. Malik just made sure that at least one smuggler will be right there watching him."
"And by making them momentarily suspicious, he made them react," Trowa said quietly, leaning past Jamal's shoulder to watch the screen. "He just confirmed the identity of every smuggler currently in the dock for us."
* * * * *
Over in segment C, Malik walked up to the counter of the parts facility and slammed his fistful of wires down on it, startling the attendant away from his comfortable gossip session with a friend at the other end of the counter.
"Uh... can I help you, sir?" he asked, a little nervously. Behind Malik, a man in grease-stained coveralls drifted casually around the corner and started examining a nearby public notice board.
"I devoutly hope so," Malik said ominously. "I will not be at all pleased if you cannot."
"Er... I'll, uh, certainly do my best, sir!" the attendant gulped, eyeing the breadth of Malik's shoulders and the way the sleeves of his shirt bulged every time he flexed his arms.
"No, no, I assure you," Malik said hastily, "you are in no way responsible for my problems and I will not be angry at you if what I need is not here! It is only that I have just completed a work rotation that has kept me on a ferry run between mining outposts in the asteroid belt for the last six months." His voice darkened. "And now that I finally have the opportunity to go home and spend some time with my wife, an excellent woman of great beauty and charm--"
"Oh, I'm sure she is!" the attendant said, nodding enthusiastically. "And I'm sure she'll be very happy to welcome you home!"
"No, she will not be happy," Malik growled. "Because thanks to the complete incompetence of the company that makes these," he waved the wires he was still clutching, "I am going to be late! I am already late! Even if you have the item I require, I will be even later by the time a replacement has been installed and we can leave here and try to get a new re-entry window! Every minute I spend here is a minute wasted, because although I am sure this is a perfectly nice station and you are an admirable man, this station is not my home and you, sir, are not my wife! How am I ever to become a father if fate conspires to keep me away from my wife?!"
"Well, sir, why don't you explain to me the precise details of your problem and we'll see if we can get you back to your wife sooner?"
"While she's still fertile," the smuggler snickered under his breath, pretending to read a lost property notice.
"This is my problem," Malik told the attendant, opening his fist to reveal two small white ceramic blocks. The hair-thin multicoloured wires dangling from his hand all ran into one or the other of them. "When I climbed into the wiring access ducts to investigate our difficulties-- and I swear I will get some sort of revenge on Auda for skipping out on what is properly his job-- I discovered that the main logic link between the aerodynamic control surfaces and the directing computer systems had disintegrated." He flicked pointedly at a smear of white dust on his sleeve, and continued. "Company regulations forbid us from beginning a flight without at least one spare for every major electronic part, and we have two of them so I thought there would be no problem replacing it... until I saw that both of the spare links had the same batch number as the one that failed."
"...That ceramic doesn't look properly fused," the attendant said slowly, leaning in for a closer look. "The surface is mottled gloss and matte... it's all supposed to be glossy--"
"Exactly," Smiling grimly, Malik slammed the two components onto the counter. When he lifted his hand away, there was nothing left but wires and a pile of ceramic powder with tiny glittering bits of metal and crystal poking out of it.
"Whoa!" The attendant puffed out his cheeks, looking impressed. "When you guys have a component failure, you really have a serious component failure, don't you?"
"If we had attempted re-entry with one of those in place, I would return to my wife, all right, as trace elements in the next rainfall! I intend to discuss this matter, in person, with the quality control department of the subcontractors that manufactured these items," Malik added, grinning nastily. "Now. Please tell me that you have two, so that I do not have to fill out the seventeen pages of forms required to justify flying without a spare."
"Well, I know we have eight different types of logic link in stock, sir," the attendant smiled, taking the slip of paper with the part number scrawled on it that Malik handed him, "so you've got a good chance."
"Allah be praised!" the Manguanac sighed, raising his eyes to the scuffed metal bulkhead above him. "Perhaps I will actually arrive home before my wife encounters her time of the month!" Behind him, the smuggler nearly choked trying not to laugh out loud, but managed to turn it into a violent cough.
"Uhh... bad news, sir. We don't have these. Sorry."
"Eight hours!" Malik bellowed, stamping back across segment E's dock towards the shuttle's personnel hatch. "Eight hours at the very least before he can assemble and test a substitute for that part! And then we must install it, and test it again! And I have to do all the paperwork!"
Behind him, his shadower walked up to the loitering man, snickering helplessly. "These guys are legit," he said positively, grinning from ear to ear. "You can tell the boss we don't have to worry about them. That poor schmuck is going to be spending all of his time filling in forms and pining for his wife's charms, and I bet he's going to make all of his friends so miserable that they won't have time to notice anything that's a little off."
"Eight hours!" Malik's voice drifted back to them.
Inside the WEI shuttle, Auda led several other Manguanacs in a round of polite, quiet applause as Malik strode up to them, breathing heavily and grinning. "I'd give that act a 9.5," he said cheerfully, patting Malik on the back. "Perhaps you should consider an acting career?"
"Only if Master Quatre decides to make a movie and asks me himself," Malik laughed. "Where else but the Manguanac Corps could I act and still get hazardous duty pay at the same time?"
* * * * *
Over the next several hours, the Manguanacs moved freely in and out of the shuttle, visiting several restaurants and generally acting like what they were supposed to be; unusually well-behaved miners on holiday. Even those who normally 'cheated' slightly by following the exact wording of the Koran when it came to alcohol-- avoiding 'fruit of the vine', i.e. some wines and beer, but still drinking whiskey, vodka and so forth-- were properly observant for once, politely refusing offers of drinks. The few smugglers who talked directly to them found that they all had detailed stories of life on a mining station to tell... and nobody noticed that they all began drifting towards very specific locations as the station's clocks approached 10 am.
Wufei pointedly hauled his bag and laptop into the station's communications center and sat down at the back of the room, watching the screens that showed the approaching Preventers shuttle.
"I see you've fixed your approach radar," he commented dryly, drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair as the tiny dot of light inched closer to the center of the screen. Apart from shooting uncomfortable glances his way, nobody responded, and he snorted quietly.
In less than an hour, either this will have worked, or I will be partially responsible for whatever harm the smugglers manage to cause, he thought, half closing his eyes and glancing at the dock schematic through his lashes. The symbol indicating the smugglers' ship looked just the same as all of the others. Well... the basic plan may be mine, but it's up to other people to execute it now.
I wish I could call Duo. He must be worried... And I wish I could have discussed the plan with him.
Even when I was trying so hard not to show my feelings during the war, I preferred it when I could get his input on a plan or a mission. I never encouraged it-- I certainly never asked him what he thought I should do!-- but sometimes he would volunteer suggestions or ideas. And I would pretend to ignore it, but most of the time I took his advice.
I hope he noticed.
Maybe... when this is taken care of, and I can go home... I should talk to him about it.
Wufei continued to watch the radar screen with a blank, neutral expression, his thoughts a very long way away.
"Are we going to get into the system in time?" Auda asked, trying not to sound nervous. "The Preventers are going to dock in five minutes, and we can't exactly call them and say 'We'd like to postpone the attack because we don't know where our targets are yet'!"
"I have it all set up and ready to go," Jamal said impatiently. "I don't want to tap into the locater system too soon, in case the smugglers are monitoring it and notice. Besides, we already know that most of them are in school at the moment."
"We do want to protect them all, Jamal!"
"And we will! Now shut up and let me work!"
"Auda, stop distracting Jamal and come on," Trowa said, leaning in the door. "Everyone is ready to go."
"I was just--"
"Yeah, Auda, listen to Master Trowa and stop bugging me," Jamal muttered quietly, leaning forward and watching his displays intently, one finger hovering over the 'Enter' key on his keyboard. "Some of us have intellectual work to do."
Auda was still grumbling quietly as he joined Trowa and several Manguanacs in the corridor leading to the shuttle hatch, but then settled down. "All right," he said quietly, running through one last weapons check and shrugging to settle his light body armour. "Our assigned target is the station control and communications center, to protect the people there from any smugglers who may make it that far; but remember that some of the station personnel may be smuggler plants. Just because we're protecting them doesn't mean we have to trust them. Everybody got that?"
Several people nodded, and he grinned. "Everybody ready?"
The nods were more enthusiastic this time, and he turned to Trowa with a flourish. "Yours to command, Master Trowa!"
In the communications center, Wufei glanced up slightly and Belle Anderson bit her thumbnail as a bored voice crackled out of a speaker. < < Satellite B-7699, this is Preventers shuttle M-17 on final approach-- > >
* * * * *
Quatre looked at his watch for what seemed like the hundredth time, and sighed almost inaudibly. "Well, they should be starting now."
Duo stopped even pretending to eat dinner, got up and wandered over to the window, looking out into the darkness.
"Would you like me to put your plate in the fridge for later, Duo?" Relena asked gently. "You'll probably feel more like eating after you find out how it all went."
"Yeah... Thanks," he said, preoccupied but grateful for her unspoken assurance that of course he'd want to eat later, because the news would be good.
Quatre looked down at his own plate as Relena picked up Duo's, then grimaced wryly and put his fork down. "I think I'll follow that advice myself..."
* * * * *
As the Preventers' shuttle slid neatly into its assigned berth and locked its docking clamps onto the station, Jamal hit 'Enter' and watched with satisfaction as dozens of little lights appeared on his station map display, each indicating a child wearing a locater beacon. Most were clustered in the station's small school area, as expected, but eleven were not, and he quickly began tapping keys, sending their coordinates to the closest Manguanac teams. Almost as an afterthought, he found and blocked the smugglers' tap into the system.
"Boss, something's wrong," a woman said urgently, pushing away from her console. "I just lost the locater information!"
"Bad connection, or--?"
"Somebody locked me out," she insisted, pointing to the blinking red 'ACCESS DENIED' on her screen.
"That Preventer," he spat angrily. "He was paying attention after all! Well, it won't do him any good. We know he didn't get word out, and we can take his friends in the shuttle before they know what's going on! Call the men on the dock!"
"Already on it," another man grinned, switching on his headset and speaking rapidly. "They're getting into position," he reported, one hand pressing an earphone closer to his head, listening intently. "Shuttle hatch isn't open yet... what?!"
"What is it? What's wrong?"
"They're being shot at from behind! It's those damn miners!"
Rashid's comm clicked, and Trowa's calm voice said < < We're moving. > > There was another click, then silence.
< < Finally! > > Faheed transmitted, able to break comm silence at last, and Rashid grinned as he pushed a button on his control panel. Explosive bolts fired, and the cargo hatch was blown open, venting its contents into space.
"There's a firefight on the dock in segment E!" one of the control room staffers yelped, torn between horror and disbelief. "It's the miners from that WEI shuttle, they're shooting at... at... he's a smuggler. I know him, so it's miners against smugglers, I don't know why--"
A faint tremor vibrated through the deck plates, and red lights started flashing on the dock schematic. "Shit! The WEI shuttle just decompressed-- at least the cargo hold, I can't tell if the living quarters went as well--"
"Did somebody shoot them?" Belle asked nervously, leaning towards a screen that abruptly switched views, displaying the feed from an external camera. "Uh... Agent Chang?"
Wufei shook his head, watching the haze spread out from the open hatch, faintly visible as sunlight glittered off of dust motes and flash-frozen condensation. "So far, everything's going as planned... though it looks like somebody forgot to put their playing cards away," he added, smiling faintly as a scatter of larger objects tumbled into view.
"Go after the kids!" the head smuggler roared, watching the screen and clenching his fists as one group of miners expertly shot at his men, providing cover for a second group who charged straight from the shuttle into the main area of the station, ignoring everyone who didn't try to stop them. His eyes narrowed as he saw a Preventer uniform at the head of the group. "He did get word out! How the hell-- fuck!"
"Boss, the Preventers are coming out!"
"I can see that!" The Preventers shuttle had opened its personnel hatch, spilling out agents in light armour who easily disarmed and captured the confused smugglers on the dock, who had only just turned around to meet the 'miners' head-on. "Get the kids, I said! If we have hostages, we can make demands and get out of here with our skins intact!"
"I'm working on it... I'm working..." The smuggler working the communications console abruptly swore, ripping his headset off and slamming it down in frustration. "Those fucking miners are all over the station, everywhere the kids are! There's a whole squad guarding the approaches to the school, they're taking everyone out without even breaking a sweat! We've got jack shit to negotiate with!"
"We've got one card left to play," his boss growled, stalking towards him. "Give me that headset!"
< < I warned you what would happen if you tried to get out of our little 'deal', > > an anonymous voice snarled out of the speakers, blurred by static. The station vibrated slightly, and more red lights began blinking on the dock schematic; this time, they were accompanied by a buzzing audio alarm.
"They're firing their engines!" wailed the same staffer who'd reported the firefight, rapidly approaching hysteria. "They're gonna do it,
just like they said, rip the station open and kill everyone they can--"
Beside him, another staff member was typing quick orders into his console. "I've unlocked the station's clamps, but they've still got theirs locked," he reported, sitting back. "If we're lucky, they'll only decompress that dock."
"If they get the angle right, they can rip the whole side of the station off and pop hull seams all the way to here!" the other man screamed at him. "This station isn't big enough to have the sort of reinforcing needed to stand up to what they're doing!"
"I hope you were right when you said you had a way to stop this, Agent," Belle said quietly, eyes fixed on the screen. "I-- where did they come from?!"
Faheed and Tariq skimmed just above the surface of the station, jets blazing, and thermal blades clutched firmly in the hands of their space Leos. They'd been chosen for this part of the mission because they were the best out of all the Manguanacs at high-speed precision strikes, and they proved their skill now, spinning sideways to fly between the station and the smugglers' ship.
< < Port clamps gone, > > Tariq's voice echoed in Rashid's helmet, followed a split second later by < < Starboard clamps gone, > > from Faheed. The ship lurched and rose abruptly, wobbling as its pilot tried to compensate for the sudden release, and Rashid swung his beam rifle on-target, smiling grimly as the faint beeping from the weapon's targeting computer turned into a constant tone. He waited just a second more, tracking the ship as it rose higher, away from the station and the other ships; then, he squeezed the trigger, and a beam of energy stabbed straight through its engines, sending a scattering of molten drops of metal out the other side.
< < All right, assholes, > > a cheerful voice broadcasted, < < this is Preventers shuttle M-17. Secure any weapons you have on board and surrender, or we'll shoot you next, and we won't be so nice and precise. If we shoot you, you will blow up. --Nice work, by the way, Manguanacs; the helping hand is much appreciated. > >
"You're welcome," Rashid replied politely, swinging the beam rifle back over his suit's shoulder as the other two Leos returned.
"Not precisely standard communications protocol, but it'll do," Wufei murmured, mouth twitching slightly as he suppressed a smile. I've got to remember to tell Duo about that line. He'll approve. He stood up and turned to Belle Anderson, nodding his head in what was almost a shallow bow. "That part went well, at least," he said calmly. "If you could give me access to an internal communications console, I can hook this in--" he showed his wrist unit "--and start getting progress reports from the other teams. In the end, we should capture enough smugglers alive to identify any agents they have in your staff."
Most of the people in the communications center looked happy at that thought-- even eager-- but one man stiffened and spun towards Wufei, bringing a small gun out as he did so, snarling, "If I'm going down, I'm taking you--"
Belle hit him in the side of the head as hard as she could, both hands clenched together into a double fist. The force of the inexpert blow spun her around and sent him sprawling, gun skittering along the floor, just out of reach of his clutching fingers. He scrambled after it and grabbed, hissing in triumph as he felt the warm metal slide into his hand, then froze as he heard an ominous double -click- from just above.
"Go ahead," Wufei told him coldly, glaring down at him over the barrel of his automatic, pointed unwaveringly at the smuggler's head. "Try it. You might actually manage to get your finger on the trigger before I fire."
"You're right-handed," the man whispered, licking his lips and glancing from the gun to Wufei's right arm, still resting in its sling. Amazingly, Wufei smiled.
"As a very good friend of mine once said," he told the smuggler, "in some things there's no point in being anything but ambidextrous." The gun lifted a fraction, centering more precisely on the spot between the smuggler's eyes.
With infinite care, the smuggler slowly let go of his gun and raised his hands.
Less than a minute later, Trowa and Auda's group of Manguanacs burst in the door to see a man lying on the floor, being enthusiastically tied up by two other staff members, Belle Anderson holding a gun dangling from her fingertips as if it smelled bad while she flexed her other hand painfully, and Chang Wufei tucking his own weapon back into concealment in his sling. Trowa raised one eyebrow at the other ex-pilot and smiled faintly, nodding; Auda and the other Manguanacs grinned and laughed.
"Master Wufei!" Auda called, flinging his hands out dramatically. "It seems you have everything well in hand here, but I suppose we should act as your protectors, anyway, until your Preventer bodyguard arrive. Master Duo would never forgive us if we allowed any harm to come to you, after all!"
"'Preventer bodyguard'?" Wufei asked dryly, tugging his sling straight. "I don't remember putting anything about a 'Preventer bodyguard' for me into the plans."
"You didn't really expect Quatre and Lady Une to let you get away without one, did you?" Trowa smiled.
"Actually, I did," Wufei admitted, slightly sheepishly. "I see I need to rethink my assumptions a little bit."
"Sir!" A small squad of Preventers ran around the corner with Nicklaus Assink in the lead, skidding to a stop as they took in the scene. Nicklaus blinked, then walked forward slowly, holstering his weapon as he looked around at the bound smuggler, enthusiastic station staff, heavily armed Manguanacs... "Well," he said calmly, coming to a halt in front of Wufei, "I feel superfluous now."
"If you brought me a command comlink so that I don't need to wire my wrist unit into a console, you aren't."
Nicklaus snapped off a crisp salute, marred only by his grin, and handed the comlink over. "Nice to see you so well, sir."
Wufei shot him a sardonic look and activated the comlink, listening to the sporadic, brief chatter as Preventers and Manguanacs sent reports back and forth. Waiting for a lull, he hit the transmit button. "Yui, this is Chang. Any problems?"
< < Not really, > > Heero's voice came back, sounding a bit sour. < < A few minor injuries, none serious. > >
"Judging by your tone... where did you get hit?" Wufei asked mildly.
< < Left calf, > > Heero growled. < < Shrapnel wound. > >
"Sorry to hear that."
< < I'm fine. As for the smugglers, they have six dead and about fifteen with debilitating wounds, a lot more with minor scratches and bruises. I sent McKenzie's team to help the Manguanacs secure the school area, and I'm expecting to get a report from her any-- > >
< < Yui, we've got a problem here, > > Leah's voice snapped over the link. Wufei's hand clenched a little tighter on the comlink as he heard children crying in the background.
< < What sort of problem, McKenzie? > > Heero asked sharply.
"Nothing we can't handle," Leah said coolly, keeping her gun extended, rock steady. Behind her, a Manguanac whisked the last two children around a corner and out of harm's way, one still crying over a forgotten stuffed toy. "The kids are all clear, but one of the teachers was a smuggler plant; she's taken one of the other teachers hostage."
"Tell him what I said!" the woman shouted, face distorted by anger and fear. The other teacher, kneeling in front of her with his hands flat on the floor, winced as she yanked his head up further by his hair and dug the muzzle of her tiny gun into his temple. "Tell him what I want, or I'll start shooting pieces off of this guy!"
"She's demanding safe passage off the station, with her hostage," Leah informed Heero, not taking her eyes off the woman. "We haven't changed our position on that sort of thing in the last five minutes, have we?"
< < No. > >
"Didn't think so. I'll call you back when this is resolved." She pushed the button to shut off the comlink and dropped it into a pocket.
"What are you doing?! You have to keep talking to him, pass on my demands or--"
"Try not to be any more of an idiot than you already have been," Leah said contemptuously. "The Preventers don't give in to terrorist demands, which is what this amounts to... admittedly, on a very small scale since we've taken out the ship that was holding the whole station hostage." She blinked in mock surprise at the woman's look of horror. "You hadn't heard? They weren't waiting for you or your friends. They tried to leave, and they were stopped. You don't have anywhere to run to any more, so why don't you just let him go and surrender?"
"No, I... I... I've still got him! If you do anything, I'll shoot him!"
"And then there won't be anything stopping me from shooting you, idiot!" Leah snorted. "Think it through, if you still have a few synapses working. You kill him, I kill you. You harm him, I wait for a good opportunity and I still kill you. You stand there dithering too long..." She smirked, cocking her head to the side. "Think fast, moron."
"You bitch!" Tears of frustration running down her face, the woman swung her gun up to aim at Leah, finger tightening on the trigger. "See if you can still laugh at me around a bullet--"
Leah fired, hitting her in the shoulder and knocking her backwards, away from the hostage. The other gun fired an instant later, the low-calibre bullet bouncing off the Preventer's body armour, leaving a slight scar.
"McKenzie to Yui," Leah transmitted, stepping to kick the little gun away to one side. "No more problem." Leaning forward, she looked down at the woman, who was gasping in shock, not yet feeling the pain from her wound.
"Normally, I wouldn't lower myself to do anything this petty," she said conversationally, "but I hate it when people hide behind innocents and won't come out and fight cleanly. So... Ha. Ha. Ha."
"I'm really glad you're on my side," the male teacher said shakily, breathing hard.
Wufei let out a slow breath, closing his eyes for just an instant as he allowed himself to relax slightly. "Report," he said clearly, transmitting. "Are any teams still encountering active resistance?"
< < Negative. > >
< < No, sir. > >
< < No, Master Wufei-- er, sir! > >
< < None, sir. > >
The responses kept coming in, all negative, and Belle slumped into a chair, hands shaking. "Thank God," she whispered, examining the bruise coming up on the back of her left hand with a sort of detached interest. "It worked..."
Wufei was lifting the comlink to his mouth again when Trowa plucked it neatly out of his hand. "She's right," the European pilot said quietly. "It worked. Heero can handle any necessary clean up, I will call Lady Une and report... which leaves you free to call Duo, and let him know that you're alive and well. Now, before he worries himself sick again."
There was only a second's hesitation before Wufei nodded gratefully and turned to the nearest communication console.
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