By Laura Thurston
Pete Philips led the customs officer on a circuitous path down narrow corridors. "I assure you, Officer Ricardo, no crew of mine is brewing hooch. Once you clear us to leave--"
She scanned the bulkhead. "That panel is off color."
Gladys Ricardo was the only human on Space Station Sadrak, which meant "Waystation" in some alien language. The proper pronunciation included colors he couldn't see and odors he couldn't smell and who knew what other senses he didn't have. Ricardo had the same limitations he did and he'd have thought she'd hurry the exit inspection through for a fellow human.
"Repair work," he said. Inspections were supposed to be cursory. He'd gotten away with much by herding officials through the required areas as fast and friendly as possible and they usually didn't notice discrepancies. Ricardo seemed to have zeroed in on exactly the wrong panel. It looked like any ordinary part of the wall, but led to an area he didn't want inspectors to see. "Couldn't get gunmetal gray so they used ancient platinum instead. I'd show you the color chip but I tossed it."
Her eyes narrowed. Her earrings threw off reflections from a source Pete couldn't identify. "They didn't install something unregistered? Something illegal? Something you might want to tell me?"
"I need you to open that panel."
Without a word, Pete spun on his heel and hurried down the corridor. She knew that panel wasn't just an ordinary crawlspace and he needed advice.
"I said, I need you to--"
"Do you see a tool belt on me? How was I supposed to know you want me to take apart my ship? Wait here."
"Fair enough, but I will accompany you." Her earrings swung in rhythm. She stayed by him despite his attempts to use his longer legs against her. She was quick, in shape, and not even breathing hard when he turned the last corner into the chief engineer's workshop.
"Zane, this is Officer Ricardo from Customs. We need to borrow your tools."
"Nobody borrows my tools." An amber light flashed on the transmitter Zane was working on. The engineer stepped between Ricardo and the flashing light. "What broke now?"
"Nothing," Pete said, "The inspector wants the panel off the wall, you know, the one where they ordered the wrong color."
Ricardo's earrings flashed. Those were certainly not regulation. Large, reflective, dangling bulbs on a silver wire that went into her lobe and looped up through the outer edge of her ear. Women's fashions in jewelry never interested Pete, but he noticed the silver wire didn't end. It went into her skull.
"You know, my wife might like a pair of earrings like yours. Where did you get them?"
She swiveled her head as if her eyes were scanners. "A gift. And I'll thank you to get your tools and remove that panel."
He hoped Zane got message. Pete didn't have a wife. They weren't brewing hooch, but there were plenty of regulations Ricardo would impound the ship for, and if she impounded the ship... Best to not think directly about that. Who knew what sort of perception the denizens of Space Station Sadrak were blessed with? And those earrings of hers weren't just jewelry.
"Right," Zane said. "There isn't even a crawl space if it's where I think it is."
Pete nodded vigorously. "It's exactly where you think it is."
Zane turned a knob on the transmitter and flipped a switch. If she were receiving transmissions through those earrings, Zane's transmitter would jam the signal.
Ricardo reached over and flipped the switch back. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
Apparently her signal was a continuous feed. Pete led the way through the ship and tried to think of a better idea. Two more corridors over was an identical set of panels leading to a spotless and regulation engine room. Ricardo's earrings swung like a metronome.
He started to turn left.
"You're leading me in circles. Don't waste my time." Ricardo brushed past him and preceded them back to the original corridor.
Ricardo tilted her head and walked slowly as if she were trying to locate an annoying, barely-audible hum. She stopped three panels down. "There. That panel." She tapped it and the hollow thud made Pete's heart skip a beat.
"Space Station Sadrak is committed to preventing interstellar crime. Our security cameras picked up a fugitive heading into this very cargo bay. Surely a law abiding ship's captain would want to cooperate with the authorities and assure us that this panel does not open into a crawlspace leading to a heavily-shielded area. Show me that it really is a secondary power array."
"Of course we'll cooperate," Pete said mechanically. What else could he say? No he didn't? That would lose him his pilot's license, his ship, and prevent him from rescuing more victims of trafficking. Her feed was accurate. That secondary power array was shielded to protect from scanners and ten people were hiding there, relying on him to get them off the station.
"We're looking for a teenage runaway. Produce her and I'll clear you for takeoff."
Ricardo was after just one kid, not the rest of the people he was rescuing from this hellhole of a space station. If he handed her over--No. Captain Pete Philips did not return innocent people to their oppressors.
"You're wasting your time with this panel, Officer. As you can see, the fasteners are hard to remove."
Ricardo knelt down to examine the panel, and Pete risked a wink at Zane. "Or you can just take our word that the panel hasn't been removed since this ship last had a maintenance check and clear us to leave. You've seen the entire ship anyway."
Zane grumbled and took his time digging through his toolkit, trying and rejecting the wrong size screwdrivers.
Ricardo tapped her foot. "I know what you just called me in that language, too, Mr. Weibe. I'm not here to make friends, Captain Philips."
Her earrings flashed. Whatever those earring enhanced, she perhaps could tell hollow from solid, minute variants in color, perhaps the slight rise in ambient temperature when multiple people occupied a small room down fifty feet of maintenance crawlspace.
"I have a startup sequence to delay," Pete said. "You can either come with me and watch or--"
"I'm staying right here. The fugitive is on this ship."
"You won't find us hiding anyone. You already saw our cargo bay. Zane, you keep working on that panel. Be right back after I abort the sequence."
Pete hurried to Zane's workshop and considered warning the refugees. No. She'd hear with those infernal earrings. She could tell exactly where the access to the hidden quarters were, and likely she could hear individual heartbeats.
An idea formed. Make her think that she hears those heartbeats, include some elevated heat, but not where the refugees really were. A simple jam was too obvious. A false signal on the other hand...
Pete sat down and reconfigured the coordinates. Everything registered one level down and three corridors over, but it would put the refugees inside the waste reclamation system. With luck, she wouldn't notice that everything had shifted.
He returned to the corridor. Zane threw his tools down. "Look, I've stripped the head. We're never going to take that panel off."
Ricardo straightened up and addressed Pete. "I know you're harboring a fugitive. If I have to show you where, I'll take your entire crew back in chains."
Pete said. "I'm willing to bet that you won't find anyone."
Ricardo spun on a heel and walked confidently down the corridor away from the secret quarters and toward the auxiliary environmental systems. "You warned them and they're hiding somewhere else now. I detect a heat signature."
"You won't find anything. And when you don't, you're going to leave my ship."
"We'll all be leaving." She stopped and pointed at a panel.
Pete nodded and Zane removed the panel. Ricardo looked inside and jerked back.
A miasma of unprocessed waste wafted out of the panel. "Not going to take a closer look?" Pete asked.
Ricardo tapped her earrings and furrowed her brow. "I'm onto your tricks."
She ducked into the crawlspace and disappeared around a corner and down a slope. A moment later, an expletive echoed up the conduit. A moment after that, Ricardo backed out of the crawlspace.
Her uniform was grimy and she held her hands behind her back. "I'm citing you for excessive unprocessed waste. That's a hefty fine."
"But you didn't find any fugitives hiding in the waste containment unit, did you?" He herded her toward the docking bay. "Send us the a bill. Right now, it's time to fly."