September 13th 2013
“That’s got it,” Ferrera said, the strained hum of his tractor beam generator underlining the statement.
“Very good, Captain.” Gates tried not to look at the gaping wound of the 325’s cockpit. He had to consciously force his hands to relax from the fists they’d made on seeing the wreck.
Hard to believe I made it through that.
“Damn, but she took a beating,” Ferrara observed, looking at the readouts.
“Yes, she did,” Gates was surprised at how level he managed to keep his voice.
“Any idea what —“
Gates spoke over the salvage man, “I have an idea, sure: it involves you asking questions when you agreed not to, and the provisions of our contract that allow me to deduct from your fee for every single question you ask.”
Ferrara closed his mouth and busied himself with the nav comp.
Gates felt a twinge of regret. Shouldn’t step so hard on the salver, might need some good will before all is said and done.
Finished plotting a course back to his station, Ferrera spoke. “Going to be a day or so before I can pull her into the shop.”
“That was allowed for. Any comms from the shop?”
“No, the deliveries you’re expecting haven’t arrived yet.”
Gates nodded. Good. Don’t want that stuff on site before I’m there to supervise the unpacking and get on the repairs myself.
Never thought I’d be grateful to Special Agent Constantine for pulling me off Special Action’s flight team and forcing me to work Maintenance and Repair on the Black Box. He struggled a moment, trying to remember what it was he’d done to earn that particular punishment. Oh, yeah, the Hadrian incident …
Coming back to the present, Gates found his gaze drifting to the cockpit of the 325 again. Suppressing a shiver, he crossed his arms across his chest.
Get a grip, Gates. Les Inconnus even did you a favor — the repairs will be easier with most of the armor already stripped or cooked off.
Somehow, that was small comfort.
Thirty-six hours later, the 325’s cockpit was restored and Gates was getting ready to pressurize the living spaces. It wasn’t pretty, but it was functional.
He had the use of one of Ferrera’s salvage frames to himself, and was keeping it unpressurized and free of gravity to ensure no one just walked in on him.
He’d found the challenging physical labor helped set aside the fear that wearing a vac suit lit him up with. He didn’t like to think about how he’d react to getting in the pilot’s seat.
I’m gonna need some serious down-time when this is over.
In the meantime — Gates activated the life-support system. It held steady amber, indicating the system was charging the compartments with breathable atmosphere and hadn’t detected any leaks. He climbed around the framework to the wing, examining the site of his next project. The cooked missile pods.
“Mister Zerezghi?” the suit comm crackled with the cover name Gates was using.
“Your parts are here.”
“Good. Push it in the airlock and leave it to me, I’ll take care of it.”
“Will do, Mister Zerezghi. You hungry?”
Gates realized he hadn’t eaten since starting work some eight hours past. “In an hour or so. Checking life-support now.”
“You work fast.”
“Needs must, when the devil drives.”
“I hear you. I’ll have something ready for you in an hour.”
Gates tossed the empty food carton into the recycler and activated his MobiGlas. He had two new messages. The first was from Angelique:
I’m on it, Armi. My friend got a bit spooked when I asked her about it, said the man you’re asking after is protected from on high. I’ll let you know as soon as I learn anything.
The postscript was interesting: Oh, and congratulate me — I managed to quit the stuff.
Good for you, Gates thought. He said as much in the return message, typed while using the head.
The second message was from Seabrook. The heavily encrypted message took a moment for Gates’ MobiGlas to process: Gates, I know we aren’t supposed to talk, but if this message is intercepted, we need to hire whoever manages it! Just don’t reply. Your decrepit encoding will get stripped first thing. Anyway, I had to tell you: Stroller’s interrogation led to another name, a high-level hitter for Les Inconnus name of Jahangir Kung. Everything indicates he’s the ‘corporate security contractor’ who uncovered Agents Nawabi and Knowles. I like him for their murders, and he’s also listed as Chief of Security for the White Stag.
On the other thing: I got you the funds you need for your ‘big purchase’ (I don’t think I want to know), but you’ve tapped me out completely.
Things are adding up. Good luck.
Smiling, Gates was back at work in minutes.
The air hissed out of Gates’s borrowed pressure suit.
That’s quite a wake up call, you moron!
The hiss became a high squeal, then cut off entirely as the suit sealed itself.
Pushing too hard. Too tired. Yawning, he’d let his grip on the cutting torch slip, holing the suit above the opposite forearm.
Hands trembling, he shut down the torch.
Lucky, stupid, clumsy, tired, old man. Time to call it a night.
Feeling every one of his many years, Gates left the bay.
He slept for eight solid, got up, and was at it again within the hour.
The missile pods were so much fused junk, which was easily solved by cutting them loose. Ferrera could salvage them for the material if nothing else.
He wasted the next few hours in mind-searing frustration trying to fit the new pods before realizing he’d misread the schematics. Cursing, he corrected the simple issue and linked the ship to the new systems.
The attitude thrusters were next on the list. Four of them had to be scrapped, and two were looking a little anemic. Ferrara had secured three new thrusters and a pair of salvaged ones Gates would prefer not to use.
The main drive had, for a miracle, not been directly damaged in the fight. The comp links had been ravaged, however, and would need replacement.
His comm activated, “Another shipment, Mister Z.”
“Same routine, please.”
“I ain’t touching this one, Mister Z.”
“My hazmat detectors say the contents are milspec explosives. Quite a large quantity.”
“I’m on it, thanks.” He made sure the thruster was in place before leaving.
“That’s some serious gear, Mister Z.”
“I know. It’s for serious business.”
“And I hear you. There’s nothing that can be traced back to you.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“I mean it.”
Ferrera shrugged. “Again, it’s not your ass going to get worked over if it’s otherwise.”
Gates rolled his neck, tried to relax, force himself not to go where instinct wanted to take him. Instead he said, “Ferrera, I give you my word, this will not come back on you.”
Ferrera went still, realizing too late that he’d made Gates start thinking of him as a potential problem. Problems in this kind of thing usually had simple, fatal solutions.
“I’m sorry, Mister Z. It’s my natural state to worry.”
“I get that, and I can only say I’m doing everything I can to make sure this doesn’t come back on you,” Gates hiked a thumb at his chest, “And I’ve been doing this a while.”
Ferrera looked at Gates a good long time, but eventually nodded. “I accept your word. I’m sorry to have doubted you.”
“I understand your concern. I’ll be out of your hair in forty-eight hours, assuming the test-flight goes without a hitch.”
“Want to eat?” Ferrera asked.
Gates accepted the olive branch.
An hour later he was back at work, pushing even harder. Ferrera might not — probably won’t — betray me, but the sooner I’m off, the better for everyone.
Each thruster wasn’t too difficult to hook up, but making sure they were properly linked to the comp was time consuming. Gates managed to get the new thrusters installed and working properly. The two thrusters he’d thought to salvage proved beyond his ability to save. Disappointed, he went ahead with installing the used ones Ferrera had found. The first required some tinkering before it would function properly, but worked out. The other fit perfectly and the first time, surprising him.
Despite the late hour, Gates started on the weapons systems. One of the Omnisky VIIs had been destroyed outright and two of the others were off-line because the power coupling had been destroyed. The new cannon proved harder to replace than the coupling, but not by much.
The mass driver had ammo feed problems that occupied his every waking moment for the next day and well into the next night before he was able to resolve them.
The enhanced sensor suite he’d had was blown, but he managed to get basic fire control and navigation sensors back in working order by the simple expedient of replacing the entire system.
“She’s ready to go,” Gates said as his host entered the galley. He’d taken the time to lay out breakfast for the two of them.
“Ahead of schedule?” Ferrera asked, scrubbing sleep from his eyes. “Ever thought about salvage work? I could use someone works as hard as you.”
“I’ll keep the offer in mind, if I’m back this way,” Gates said. I may actually need work, if I make it through. Suspension is likely the least of the punishments that’ll be in order if Angelique can’t come through for me on the other side of this.
“You going to test-fly her?”
“Yes, but if it doesn’t need work, I won’t be back,” Gates said, holding out a coffee.
Ferrera grinned as he took the drink. “If you really screwed up the repairs, you may not be able to come back.”
That startled a laugh from Gates. “True.”
“You got everything you need?”
“Yes. And I left you a bit of a bonus, for your trouble.”
“Thanks. Unnecessary, but thanks.”
“You did everything I asked you to, and without complaint.”
Another grin, “More or less.”
Gates answered with his own smile, “Yeah, more or less.”
The 325 handled just as well as it did before, it was his own state of mind that concerned him. Never had nerves like that, just putting on a damn flight suit. Better not happen when things kick off. Got to be ready …