AND THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES
A Gunslinger Girl fanfiction, based on works by Yu Aida.
Chapter 08|Cosmic Girl
Picking up the last suitcase from icy gravel and slotting it home into the boot of his borrowed Aston, Jethro turned to the fratello's host. "Cheers for putting us up."
Stood by the foot of Moonraker's front steps, Moratti gave a nonchalant flick of his hand, brushing off something of no consequence. "Think nothing of it; to be honest, organising these events, having someone around helps keep me sane."
"I can imagine."
From her own position at the DB9's passenger door, Monty ran her eye over the two men, then further back to where Mary, now wrapped in a white bathrobe, sheltered in the chalet's open doorway, taking advantage of the heat leaking from its interior as she watched proceedings. While she still had no idea what the other woman's agenda had been here, that was a face Monty would be keeping a particularly keen eye out for from now on, and a nagging voice said it would be one to appear again. In the meantime, it might not hurt to start quietly shaking a few branches to see what fell out.
"I'm sorry to bail on you so quickly..." her handler was talking again, "...but real life calls; we were pushing to stay back the extra day or so as was."
"I understand, but think about what you've seen and discussed."
"You can bank on it, ciao."
As Jethro settled behind the steering wheel and thumbed the Aston's big V12 to life, his girl took one last look around, then slipped into her own seat, closing the door with a solid thud to seal out the cold. Turning to her partner, she shot him a small smile.
"So where to now?"
"Not sure yet. I figure we can stop off in Interlaken or Lucerne and sort out the 'how to' part of 'get home' from there. If you want to make yourself useful, dig out a map and pick a few routes."
She nodded; in fact they knew exactly where they were going: the nearest airport. The car having been left unattended and in potential enemy hands for days though, any sort of detailed discussion would need to wait until it could be swept for snooping devices, and that meant being well beyond the sight of Moonraker or Grindelwald. One thing however was clear: if they were to stand a chance of intercepting Moratti's rocket groundside, getting airborne had to take top priority, and sorting out reasoning and research could wait until later.
As they gathered speed easily down the private access road, the girl reached back to retrieve her handler's iPad and start booking flights to French Guiana. Likely they'd need to go Paris via Zurich first, then on to the French région d'outre-mer which, per her suspicions, was about to play havoc with transit times.
A hand on her leg made her glance up, and Jethro motioned at the side mirror. Using it to get her own look behind the British coupe, she could see a black Alfa Romeo 159 loping along further up the tarmac. Turing to her partner, she raised an eyebrow.
In way of answer the spy squeezed the throttle a bit more, picking up speed, not flat out but fast enough for someone enjoying a spirited drive on a good road, and the Alfa held its position. There was only one place it could have come from, and the pace he was carrying would have seen off anyone without a reason to remain glued to his tail. That was worrying. Should the saloon still be there after they entered Grindelwald and took a few back streets, he would need to do something about it.
Unfortunately working to shake a tail through town would be tantamount to admitting there was reason to shake the tail in the first place; Grindelwald only had one main street, running along its length, and should have been impossible to get lost exiting. However, they also couldn't risk witnesses to the fratello's final destination.
Then again, Moratti already knew he was a car enthusiast…
Mayhaps it was time to risk a speeding ticket rather than play backstreet games.
Turning right out of Moonraker's access into light holiday traffic, the spy pootled along just on the speed limit, black Alfa shadowing each wheel turn a few cars behind. Idling between the town's buildings, he reached forward to disengage the Aston's traction control and beside him, Monty took the hint, slotting the iPad away to leave both hands free. As the last house slid past and the route bled into that to Interlaken, he knocked the car into manual and nailed the accelerator.
There was a pause, only for an instant, as the engine's computer brain caught up with recent events then, from the big V12 it controlled erupted a bellow of freedom and the DB9 thundered off down the mountain road. A second later the trailing 159 jinxed out from behind the car it was following and gave chase, adding a throaty Italian yowl to the echoing landscape.
Well that answered that question.
Taking advantage of the long, sweeping asphalt upper sections Jethro kept his foot in, feeling the big GT squirm on winter tread blocks. Cubic inches were however making a difference in this open stage and their pursuer fell further behind on the icy road, though not as quickly as the Englishman would have liked. He probably shouldn't have been surprised that their tail would be one of the powerful, all wheel drive models, but that was going to make life more interesting when they hit the twists further down.
Fortunately he wasn't out of tricks just yet.
For now though he guided his vehicle from tightening bend to tightening bend, riding the limit of what grip the cold road could offer up. Further back the Alfa held its distance, simple physics finally having negated its British quarry's power advantage, eighteen strained cylinders adding their roaring chorus to the mountain air.
Ahead the tarmac started to wind itself further into knots and despite the handler's best efforts his pursuer started to gain ground. Things were going to get worse before they got better too, but if memory served there were two switchbacks further up, then the road straightened out into supercar territory again. If he could just carry enough speed through those bends...
The game most certainly was not over yet.
The complex arrived, jinxing away from under the flying chase. Unsettling his steed's tail, Jethro flung the Aston around the bucking black ribbon, haring up the short linking straight to the next bend, rear tyres scrabbling for grip. As winter rubber finally found purchase the car flicked the other direction, the spy using the momentum to trim its line and send it sailing through the second hairpin. Clearing the exit the road wiggled slightly, before opening out to where the Brit could deploy every single one of the 470 horses available to him.
Behind, the Alfa exited the last turn in a long four wheel drift and gave chase, falling further back as the Aston rocketed away. Checking his rear-view mirror, Jethro looked hard at the gap, it may just be enough.
A fast left and yump lifted the car off its suspension, forcing its driver to grab a handful of opposite lock as they rounded a small rise, topography hiding the T-intersection ahead from their pursuers as a sign flashed past; right for Interlaken, left for the mountain hamlet of Lauterbrunnen. Offering up a quick prayer, Jethro lifted briefly to key the nose in and jinxed left, spraying gravel from spinning wheels and rabbitting back up into the mountains around another concealing bend. With a little luck the tail would assume he would head for Interlaken and freedom, rather than to another town and dead end. From here the road down to the lakes hugged near vertical rock tightly, and by the time the Alfa's driver found a straightway long enough to realise his quarry had gone the other way, the fratello should have been able to go to ground. Finding a roughly graded forestry track, the handler wrenched his loaner from the asphalt, wincing as carbon fibre grazed frozen earth, wide tyres kicking up stones and dirt to ping off pristine body work.
Pulling up behind a concealing stand of pines, he left the engine idling as Monty leapt from her door and ran back to where she could covertly keep an eye on passing traffic. Undoing his own seatbelt, her partner started to go through the car from nose to tail, checking under carpets, in air-vents, behind electronics boxes and feeling inside interior trim. Five minutes later he found what he was looking for.
That though he kept silent about as his girl came trotting back, letting her set about her own search as a double check. That proved thankfully fruitless and, feeling more assured they were clean, Jethro held the little plastic and wire bug up for inspection, then hurled it unceremoniously, deep into the trees.
Safely back behind closed doors, Monty turned to her partner as he pointed them back toward sealed tarmac. "Our friend has just headed back up to Lauterbrunnen."
"Well then lets hope they're willing to spend the next few hours turning the place upside down; what say we put that time to good use?"
"Miles ahead of you, though I can't help but think Ferro'll be a bit miffed about having to make the trip up again..."
In way of reply, Monty retrieved the iPad, returning to trawl the internet for flights as her handler accelerated back toward Interlaken, their loaner Aston loping away at saner, touring, speeds.
"I had the impression Air France were doing something about their Business Class..."
Reaching over in the darkened cabin, Jethro gave his girl's knee a squeeze. Though the airline's accommodations had come forward by leaps and bounds, this particular Airbus had not been one to benefit from the refit. Apparently the Guiana route was where aeroplanes went before being put out to pasture, as evidenced by the decidedly aged seats he and his partner now resided in.
Leaning across the centre armrest he brought his head close to hers. "I'm just glad you managed to grab the last couple of business class places on short notice. It looks like being a sleepless couple of days and I was not feeling entirely enamoured about adding an economy passage on the front end."
"Sleepless is one way to put it; we'll need to high-tail it up from the airport to Guiana Spaceport if we're going to make their afternoon tour."
"For the day prior to launch, through Paris again."
"What are you looking at now then?"
Twisting her computer slightly, away from the aisle so her partner could see, the girl zoomed out of the PDF document which was visible on screen. "Drawings for Mercury off'f Moratti's server; I think we can safely say there's a bit more than comms gear packed into there."
"Throw them here."
She held out her hand, "tablet."
Waiting patiently until she finished transferring the drawings onto his iPad, the spy took it back and found a general arrangement to familiarise himself with Mercury's layout. Monty had been right; much of what it contained didn't look anything like communications technology, though what was occupied the rear two thirds of the satellite. The bird itself was roughly an elongated box shape, with solar panels tucked up next to its long sides waiting to unfurl into glistening wings on command. On the two sides not dedicated to power were masts mounting large dish antennas, also tucked away awaiting deployment.
Of more interest however were the optics embedded in the top end of the satellite's body, those certainly were not part of a communications suite; no wonder Moratti needed an Ariane to throw the thing up into orbit. Flicking to the next page, Jethro carefully studied the detail drawing displayed there.
As if reading his mind, Monty pipped up quietly, "The problem here is that we need a catastrophic failure, without being detected during pre-launch checks."
"And destroying the rocket itself isn't going to do the EU economy much good."
"Somehow I doubt it, Arianespace is too good of an earner," she paused. "If you're happy to go through those drawings though, I'll start on the Ariane Users' Manual."
"They actually make one of those?"
She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, massaging tired eyes. "Sort of, it's more a 'how to' for the corporates Arianespace contracts to, mixed in with a load of marketing gaff... freely available off their website. The basics are there though, and it might throw up some options."
"Well, you can have two hours with it, then you're going to get some shut eye."
The girl cocked an eyebrow. "I think it would be better if we knew as much as possible before landing."
"Which, believe it or not, I am capable of handling without constant adult supervision. You however have a late night coming up... I get to play a bit earlier, but your chances of sleeping in the twenty-four hours after we hit tarmac are basically zero."
"And what about you?" The question was deadpan.
"You know that one you always pull on me? 'I'll sleep in the car'?"
Monty's expression became suspicious. "Mmmhmm..."
"I'll sleep in the car."
As far as the grand scheme of culture shocks went, stepping from the plush leather and wood slathered interior of Michele Pagani's V12 Aston Martin into a rental, diesel Toyota Prado was pretty up there... velour upholstery and all. Pulling out of a side turning, Jethro ran the unturboed engine up its narrow power band before finding the next gear to let the grumbling 4WD continue gathering momentum. It really was the only way to describe the action, "accelerate" would suggest some form of demonstrable motive force. That demanding power train, mixed with cheap interior plastics and poor sound insulation had unfortunately made for a particularly taxing trip from Cayenne airport to Kourou, then further north on to here. One of these days he was going to find a way around that "or similar" clause.
In the seat next to him, Monty looked up from the satellite drawings she had been again perusing. "Going by that you have marked up; either guidance hardware or killing power to the intelligence gathering package..."
Her handler took a second to change mental gears. "One of those, yes."
Looking down the girl again studied the PDF files, massaging at her upper arm in thought. "Power would be easier and more likely to shut the thing down, but shorting one of the concealed boards is going to be more difficult for someone to spot."
"How about keeping both in mind?"
"That was the thinking," the massaging hand moved to pinch the bridge of her nose. "I'll try for the intelligence package, but... I'll keep looking."
"Save it for later, we're here."
Running one last eye over the satellite drawings, Monty closed the file down and turned her computer off, lowering its lid. The problem was that they just didn't have enough time to get a detailed handle on what lay ahead, and considering this particular territory was even less well charted than usual… she felt like one grasping at straws blowing in the wind. With no time to sort them into some semblance of order, she could but glance at each fragment as it flashed through her fingers before stuffing it away with its previously captured compatriots, in the hope that together they may eventually form a cohesive whole. Sighing, the girl turned her attention out the windscreen to take in the view; it wouldn't do for her to arrive without showing even a little interest.
She had to admit the sight ahead was reasonably impressive, even in light of the leviathan landscape the fratello had abandoned just a day earlier. At the end of the straight road could be seen a skeletal metal globe, surrounded by high poles, each sporting the flag of a member of the ESA community, the effect slightly ruined by a hodgepodge of out of date looking brick buildings backstopping the scene. To the right however, towering above the jungle lining each side of the tarmac was the white bulk of a full size Ariane 5 launcher, leaving no visitor in doubt as to where they were arriving: CSG, the Centre Spatial Guyanais, primary launch site of the European Space Agency.
Finding a carpark facing the Musee de l'Espace, the fratello stepped out into hot, humid air. The centre had originally been created in the mid-60's as the sole dominion of France, taking advantage of its région d'outre-mer's equatorial location. In 1975 with the formation of a Europe wide space agency, the French had offered to share their facility, and ESA had been more than happy to take the extra lift capacity the site would offer with both hands; even if it did mean also putting up with a sticky, tropical climate.
Stepping around the front of the Prado, Monty undid another couple of buttons from her pristine white shirt, shaking the fabric out, while Jethro locked the four wheel drive.
"We were lucky to get in this afternoon," said the girl quietly as her partner joined her. "ESA's tours normally ask a few more days advance booking."
"Good thing I've got you then."
"I may have needed to invoke Alstrom's name."
Jethro, reached out to give her shoulder a squeeze then looked around. "Do you know where this thing leaves from?"
"How about you go ask the Information desk?"
"But that's what I have you for."
Taking station beside her handler, the cyborg slung the large camera she carried over a shoulder and studied her surroundings from behind dark sunglasses. The Musee de l'Espace was impossible to miss, its name signed in large black letters across the carpark facing wall. That made the building behind it, as she had gleaned from the Ariane guide, Jupiter Control: ESA's primary mission control facility, backed up by the smaller, heavily armoured Launch Control further north toward the action. Beyond Jupiter rested one of the payload processing facilities, allowing customers to check and complete assembling their birds onsite after transport. Unfortunately, though the latter information was nice to know, Mercury was well beyond that stage of its launch campaign. With that thought she looked out to her left, past the huge Ariane 5 model stood guard over the entrance to the buildings, down range of which, somewhere far out of sight, a real version of that lifeless mockup was waiting to be rolled from its protective assembly building to the launch pad.
Walking from scorching carpark asphalt onto grass, now luxuriously green after the weather which had so hindered Moratti's original launch window, the Blackers made their way toward the shaded gap between the Space Museum and Jupiter. Set back under the former's overhanging upper levels they found the cream and red panelled public information counter, where a French speaking local was able to check their names and passports against a register, then direct them to where that afternoon's tour would be leaving from.
Handing two passes through the window, the woman looked the pair up and down. "The tour starts at thirteen-fifteen, refreshments are available inside if you wish."
Jethro nodded his thanks, then glanced at his watch, "Guess we've half an hour or so to kill."
Resting a hand gently between her shoulder blades, the spy guided his partner along the steep entrance steps and through a set of swinging glass doors to the café located at the Museum's front. It wasn't a large affair, but the fratello were able to find a secluded table crammed up into a corner, their voices lost amongst sight seers and employees sharing the space.
Taking a sip of her ice tea, Monty stared out, past the café's patrons and over the grounds, again massaging at her bullet wound, now hidden by a loosely rolled shirt sleeve. If the action seemed absent minded however, her face was brooding.
Watching across their drinks, Jethro hesitated for a moment then, reaching over, gently took hold of the massaging hand and placed it back on the table. The girl grimaced as she realised what she had been doing, and her head swung to look at him.
"What's got you so pensive?"
She paused slightly. "Nothing important right now."
"Because you always think so hard on 'not important' things, spit it out."
His partner paused again, possibly collecting her thoughts and the spy used the opportunity to spin his chair around so he could reverse his position on it, leaning on its back at the same time to bring his face more intimately close.
Monty gave a little sigh. "Mary... Switzerland… and I've absolutely no clue what she was set out to achieve there."
Jethro shrugged, but the noncommittal gesture was at odds with the expression that passed across his own face. "Your guess is as good as mine luv, but we ran into her in Monaco, then crossed paths again in Alexandria and now Moonraker; and you know what they say about third times…"
"…so we assume whatever she is up to, there's a high probability it doesn't align with our own interests."
"That would be the safe assumption until proven otherwise."
The girl took another sip of her drink. "So far she's turned up at three fairly major turning points for us. The last is a bit more difficult, being as it's unrelated to the previous two insofar as we know… but her cover has her sniffing around Marritima as well."
"Could be its just coincidence?"
"You were the one started quoting Moscow Rules, not me… and I honestly doubt you believe that."
"We've been together too long..." the hander nudged back the sleeve of his suit jacket to glance at his watch. "Push it from your mind though, time for the job at hand, here and now."
"I can't help but feel that Mary is more part of the job at hand than we've yet realised."
Standing, Jethro spun his chair around so it faced back toward the table and, polishing off her tea, Monty joined him, allowing herself to again be guided lightly out of the cafe by his touch. Trotting together down the steps, the Blackers crossed to where a small crowd was starting to gather. The group wasn't large and Monty studied those with whom she would be sharing the next few hours. Fortunately the European Space Agency banned children under eight years old from its grounds, a move she considered to be one of genius; however that hadn't prevented an American family from bringing a gaggle of brats who could have only just scraped past the age guideline, one of which now pointed her way.
A couple of heads turned, but most were at least bright enough to mind their own business, and she glared at the child, which returned her look with a defiant expression. Unfortunately human eyes weren't up to the task of staring down a cyborg, and eventually it was forced to turn away. Catching the exchange, Jethro put an arm around his girl and gave her shoulder a quick "bear with it" squeeze.
The rest of the party was made up of two other couples, in both cases one half looking significantly more excited than the other, and a group of men whom she could only assume to be on holiday, or undertaking a similar business trip detour as that which she and her handler were using for cover.
As the young agent finished her perusal, a uniformed local man joined them.
"Welcome to the Centre Spatial Guyanias, Europe's Spaceport!" he said in accented French. "I am Mathieu, your guide today."
From somewhere in the crowd came a rude mutter over the choice of language, but Mathieu either didn't hear, didn't understand or chose to ignore it. "If you would care to follow me, this afternoon's tour will commence in le Musee de l'Espace, with a film about the CSG itself. We will then visit Jupiter Control and finally travel north to Ariane 5's facilities. While the model behind you is full size..." he gestured to the towering mock up, "...we are lucky enough have a completed launch vehicle in the centre, available for viewing at the end of our tour. Now, if you will follow me?"
The guide started toward the museum doors, talking to a broad rundown on the space centre and the area of French Guiana in which it resided. Letting the tourists push through first, Jethro and Monty tagged themselves onto the back of the crowd as it filed into the building, past displays and to a small cinema. Staying in kind, the fratello took seats toward the rear of the darkened room.
"Are they going to make out!?"
Sighing slightly, Monty gave her partner a flat look and cocked an eyebrow. "Do you think they have gaffer tape around here somewhere?"
"Probably, keep an eye out."
While he didn't intend to vocalise the thought lest someone overhear, the spy didn't mind the loud childish remarks. Now with a bit of luck, that idea would worm its way into the heads of the other tour members, for them to explain away to themselves as to why he and his girl were hanging toward the back of the pack.
As the lights dimmed, he lifted the seat divider and slipped an arm around her.
Soon the French voice over started, with subtitles in English. Allowing that to mask his own low words, Jethro tilted his head down. "Any thoughts on how to get in?"
His partner didn't take her eyes from the screen. "If you believe Google, there's a little back track through the jungle which hits Route de l'Espace between the Soyuz facilities and spaceport proper. It's on public land, so if you drop me there I could probably come in near the Ariane 4 facilities on the western perimeter, jump the fence then try to hitch a lift with something going past. It looks like there's a bit more foliage inside the wire, but if we can eyeball it during the tour, so much the better. How about you; do you need anything from me?"
"Shouldn't think so, just try and prevent anyone from missing me."
An hour later, and now slightly better informed about Europe's space effort, the fratello exited the cinema amongst the other tour guests. Doing a quick head count to make sure all his charges were present and accounted for, Mathieu herded them off toward Jupiter Control and, tagging along at the back again, Monty pulled a small grimace: what they didn't need right now was an attentive chaperone.
Crossing the wide breezeway between Museum and Mission Control buildings, the group filed back into air conditioning and past the security check point at Jupiter's entrance, allowing the gendarme there to recheck their identification. Handing over his passport for perusal, Jethro noted the couple of CCTV camera views on one the station's computer monitors, as well as the full size SIG pistol the man carried.
Satisfied, the guard handed the passport back, and with the final person on the tour now checked off, their guide directed them on again toward a set of stairs across linoleum flooring. Those led upwards, to some complaint from the less fit of the party, eventually depositing them into a large, glass fronted seating gallery, overlooking banks of computer stations in the room below. Dead centre of the darkened upper deck stood a small model of an Ariane 5 and, on the wall at the front of the control centre, large sport-stadium style screens kept those VIPs sat here informed of what was going on below and at the launch site proper.
Directing his charges past a row of round, chrome-fronted lights, adding points of interest to the otherwise dimly illuminated space from their position set into the wall, Mathieu gave a moment to let the scene sink in.
Someone obviously didn't forget that space was most exciting in the 1960's here either.
Just as the man was about to start speaking, Jethro held up a finger, "Umm, sorry to interrupt but… little boy's room?"
There was a visible sigh. "Back downstairs, then to the right."
"I need to go too!"
This was why he didn't like children.
The same loud child was pulling at its father's shirt and its mother turned to her husband. "Go with him."
"I don't wanna miss..."
Unfortunately the rest of the protest apparently fell on deaf ears, and the tourist was soon following his British companion back down the stairs, son in tow. Turning in front of the guard station, Jethro kept an ear out for his trailers as the gendarme helpfully pointed out in which direction their destination lay.
The men's room was not difficult to find, though deep blue tile floors, and urinal cisterns mounted high with a pull chain rather than concealed behind gyprock, belied its age. Taking a position at one of the stations, Jethro heard an "I'll wait out here" from the corridor, followed by footsteps and the sound of a cubicle door closing behind him. Finishing his business, the agent glanced at the cisterns again, and a quick smile flashed across his features; there may just be a way to turn this to his advantage after all.
Pulling the flush, using the noise to cover himself, the handler lifted the top from the tank above and reached inside. Pushing across hard he jammed its float in place, preventing it from rising with the water filling the reservoir, then carefully replaced the lid and went to wash his hands. Taking the time to do the job properly, he was just stepping out the door again when the inevitable shout finally went up.
"The bathroom's flooding! Cool!"
Jethro glanced at the American still waiting in the hall, meeting the man's eyes and keeping his expression admirably neutral, then both men rushed back inside to where water was gushing from the sabotaged cistern, cascading onto the floor.
"What the fuck did you do boy!"
"I didn't do anything!"
Switching to his own best dismayed face, Jethro looked at his compatriots. "Oh bloody… you two stay here, I'll get the guard."
Without waiting to see if he received a reply, the Brit turned away as the argument behind him started up again.
Walking quickly down the control centre concourse he made his way to where the gendarme was still seated. "Umm, I think your toilet's flooding."
The man looked at him in confusion, and he switched to French. "Err… les toilettes sont des inondations?"
The confused expression remained, if only for a second, then the guard let loose something foul in his native tongue, before standing.
"I'll ask the tour group to hold," put in the spy helpfully, and his opposite nodded, before swiping his ID card and hitting a button to lock the front door. Building secured, the man hurried away toward rising voices.
Making sure the guard had disappeared from sight around the curve on the concourse, Jethro fiddled with his shirt sleeve briefly, removing one of the small USB drives hidden in his cufflinks. Stretching down behind the station counter, he plugged it into a free computer port, where it started rapidly uploading into the space centre's networked CCTV system a small computer program, known affectionately to the boffins who created it as Auto Ella.
"Ella" wasn't a malicious program, it wouldn't wipe data or scramble systems, and it would lie dormant until the server's internal clock triggered it that evening. When it did however, it would start buffering a five second segment of footage from each camera in the network, feeding it to the monitors half a second off real time, which didn't mean much unless its second function was triggered. Built into the software was a complex recognition system, and the moment either of the Blacker fratello came into view, Ella would start to loop its buffered recording, making them all but invisible to watching electronic eyes.
The system of course wasn't perfect, far from it in fact. If the loop cut in or out at an inopportune moment it would be all too easy to spot, and in order to function it needed to carry a huge amount of facial and anthropometric data for the people it was filtering out: everything a rival agency would need to see through almost any disguise. In an attempt to combat that, Ella would wipe itself from the system after a set time period, but the risk presented was still far greater than either Jethro or Monty would have been willing to accept under normal circumstances. Unfortunately, this particular job needed to be done quick and dirty, with whatever safety net they could get, no matter how poorly constructed… and beggars did not have the luxury of being choosers.
Soon the drive's little concealed light ceased blinking, and the spy extracted it from the computer, replacing it in his cuff, before heading up stairs to do exactly as he had promised and hold the tour.
Five minutes later they were joined again by the American man and his son. Above the child's enthusiastic retelling of the excitement downstairs, Jethro turned to its father. "So did they find the problem?"
"Yeah, cistern broke, cheap Euro crap… eer no offence intended."
"None taken," replied the Brit levelly, putting on his best conciliatory grin. "I assume it's fixed now?"
"Naw, they turned the water off but it's gonna need a plumber, thing's totally busted."
Returning from the observation gallery's front rail where she had been taking photos, Monty slung her camera back over a shoulder and slipped in under her handler's arm.
"Yes, my niece…" Jethro glanced at his cyborg. "…her parents aren't with us anymore so she travels with me on business. It's not a perfect arrangement but…"
"…we make it work," finished the girl, "and it certainly beats boarding school."
Before anything else could be said, Mathieu started waving from by the rocket model, calling for his group's returned attention. "Are there any questions about Jupiter Control? No? Then if you would like to come this way, we will board the bus to Ariane's facilities."
Traipsing back to ground level, the tour party exited back past the gendarme, who gave Jethro a quick nod as the Englishman left, brushing past a cleaner headed the other direction with a cart full of mops and rags. Sticky heat washed over the group as it stepped outside again, and skin which had dried out in the climate controlled environment was rapidly glistening with perspiration again, moisture unable to evaporate into heavy air. Eager for relief, the small crowd flowed quickly over scalding asphalt toward a white minibus stationed in the carpark, engine already idling and a small puddle of condensation forming between its wheels.
Manoeuvring his partner onto the vehicle first, Jethro steered her ahead so she would need to take a window rather than the protective aisle, in keeping with their cover if not her personal taste. Selecting a pair of seats at the back of the Mitsubishi Fuso, the Blackers watched the buildings of the spaceport's public and administration areas melt away as they accelerated toward the launcher assembly and preparation facilities.
The road itself, explained to be Route de l'Espace, ran dead straight behind the coastline, with little to look at on its northwest journey bar jungle and grassland until the tall, white structures of the Ariane and Vega rocket facilities breached the horizon. Pulling up at a security checkpoint on the eastern side of the complex, the bus's occupants waited for a covered truck in front to be waved through, before having their passports again inspected by a surly complexioned Legionnaire of the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment. Beside the checkpoint's boom gate stood a second solider, FAMAS rifle slung casually but conspicuously across his chest. That fact wasn't lost on the bus's juvenile contingent either, whom stared out the window at the weapon as the gate rose and their vehicle passed through the spaceport's razor wire topped, chain-link fence.
Trundling past, Monty took note of the rough, muddy vehicle track which disappeared along the security perimeter in either direction and locked it away in her memory. Assumedly it would be patrolled day and night; anyone paranoid enough to sandbag their checkpoints wouldn't not, and she would need to look out for that.
Driving a short distance along the entry road, the Fuso turned left, skipping past the monolithic final assembly building to link up with an asphalted transport corridor running south. The course gave the Blackers, seated as they were, an excellent view across rutted grass to the facility proper, foregrounded by the launcher integration building's tall bulk, under the massive doors of which this road disappeared. Picking up her camera, Monty fired off a few shots, careful to catch the far western entrance she intended to use in-frame as well.
"Just passed are the buildings in which the final stages of Ariane 5's launcher campaign take place. Beyond those to your right stand the old Ariane 4 facilities, Vega buildings and the road to our Soyuz launch site," started Mathieu, as if reading their minds. "While Ariane is CSG's heavy lifter, Vega offers a more cost effective method to get smaller payloads into low earth orbit and, since it was added to the ESA family, Soyuz presents a proven and ultra-reliable means by which to take that same equipment to a geostationary transfer orbit. We however, will be touring Ariane, starting with its booster integration building. The booster facility lies further south, away from the rest of the complex and close to the solid propellant production plants..."
The building itself proved to be empty; manufacturing company Astrium not yet ready to put its next launcher in the pipeline. However the fratello and most of the tour group listened intently to their guide's information, Monty continuing a pattern by snapping a few more photos of the interior and surrounds as she left. While she didn't intend to come this far south at all, it wouldn't hurt to spend a bit of time studying what was here… lest Murphy decide to step in.
Having re-embarked the tour bus, that vehicle headed back the way it had come, following the rocket assembly line. Not stopping at the propellant store for fairly blatant and obvious safety reasons, their next stop was Astrium's launcher integration building; which was explained to be where the manufacturer joined Ariane's main cryogenic stage to the solid fuel boosters. Though impressive with its squeaky clean floors and multiple mobile gantries, it was another stop at which the Blackers found the bulk of their interest lay outside. From the hardstand in front of the personnel access, Monty managed to get a few more shots west, past the Vega facilities and hardened bunker of Launch Control, toward her intended ingress point.
The tour's final stop however, just to the south east, held significantly more promise. Disembarking the Mitsubishi, the girl turned her eyes and camera directly north where, almost three kilometres distant, spindly lightning rods marked the Ariane 5 launch pad, butted up against the spaceport's northern exterior fence. To one side of the slender metal lattices stood the massive services tower and, further removed again; the pad water tower, to be emptied at blast off, dulling each rocket's violent beginning of its journey.
Content she had captured all she could from here, Monty gave her attention to today's main event: the tall, white building which stood just meters away, the Bâtiment d'Assemblage Final, or BAF. The final assembly building in which Moratti's Mercurybird now slumbered atop its multi-million euro perch.
Construction joints and weathered paint broke up otherwise flat and featureless walls towering up over her head, belying the complexity of what they protected behind carefully poured concrete. Taking another photo the cyborg ran a finer eye over what she could see, checking for cameras or sensors hiding in the shadows under eaves. Walking closer she let her focus run lower as she followed the rest of the tour inside trailed by her handler, such that when she passed through the BAF outer door into cool, dry, conditioned air, she was checking the ground level lock.
That didn't look like it would offer much resistance, though the CCTV pickup trained on it could be more of an issue. Even with Ella there as backup, it was only a safety net, not something to be relied upon and she did not like being caught in the cold regard of those unblinking electronic eyes. Walking into their field of view would require caution on her part… assuming a better entrance did not present itself of course.
"Make sure to close the door, we don't want any of the local wildlife taking a journey into space," started Mathieu with a toothy grin as the crowd passed through the inner access and gathered again in a tight, narrow space between metal walls. Glancing down as they were herded up a set of stairs attached to one side of the steel chasm, Monty could see metal tracks, cast into the concrete below and running out under the panels opposite.
"Today we are lucky enough to have a full Ariane awaiting launch. Normally under these circumstances this area would remain closed to public visitation, but as the payload has already been assembled into its equipment bay, the risk of contamination is low enough that its owners have kindly allowed us to enter the building. The umbilical mast behind you carries services to keep Ariane alive until it can be launched and forms part of the rolling launch table on which we now stand…"
As he kept talking, the cyborg continued to study her surroundings. The stairs passed a portaled door set into the metal beside her as they ascended, though the interior was too dimly lit to see past the reflections on the outer glass without appearing overly nosey...
…which didn't prevent her handler from pressing his face up against the glass, using his hands to block out the light. Stopping with him she gave a small, exasperated sigh, waiting with the thinly veneered patience of a parent saddled by a beloved but especially errant child.
Shortly he broke away again, bending down to give her buttocks a slight push toward where the stairs continued their upward journey in pursuit of the rest of the group. "Looks like a monitoring and inspection point for the mast services."
Like Astrium's facility, this one belonging to Arianespace was squeaky clean and, if she was going to take a guess, probably slightly positive pressured. Keeping such a large, open area that spotless was an impressive feat. Unfortunately the staff's diligence went unnoticed as the towering white bulk of an Ariane 5 crept into view over the top of the stairs, drawing eyes inexorably upwards toward its peak. The massive rocket lay bare and exposed under lights, tapering away toward some imaginary vanishing point until support clamps and gantries closed around it just above the boosters' tips, hiding the rest from view. A decapitated giant, still caught in the guillotine's stocks.
Surrounded as it was by walkways and umbilicals, getting a handle on its full dimensions beyond there proved difficult. However, Monty wasn't going to complain about the arrangement, and she happily fired off shot after shot from her Canon, capturing everything visible. She wasn't the only one either, as synthesised sounds of phone cameras and beeps of digital point and shoots filled the otherwise silent space. Amongst it all she turned to get another image of the beige-hued tower behind her.
According to the launcher campaign as described on the CSG website, there were two observation windows and two service hatches which would give her access into the rocket's equipment bay, and thereby to Mercury, currently obscured from sight. Making use of the full 105mm zoom allowed her by the camera's stock lens, the cyborg focused in as best she could on that area. The platform which encircled the cowling was decked with solid plate, assumedly placed level with those hatches, and plenty of yellow painted steelwork ran up the back wall to get her there should more conventional means of ascent prove unserviceable.
Availing herself of the wide, open area atop the launch table which the tour group occupied, the young agent found another angle to study her target from. One thing which was becoming noticeable as her focus started to broaden was how quiet and empty the building was. It would have seemed more befitting for it to be a hive of activity, personnel rushing around like white coated, clipboard wielding ants, scurrying back and forth making sure everything was in order, checking and re-checking; the silent tomb in which she now stood somehow seemed... wrong.
The weather delay, of course.
A three day holdup to operations had probably left the project staff very little left to do bar last minute checks and twiddle their thumbs; though she certainly was not about to count on things remaining quiet for the next twenty-four hours. That said, and again if the literature were to be believed, those checks mostly took place after the vehicle rolled out the massive doors behind her to its launch site.
Re-joining her partner, Monty allowed him to slip an arm around her shoulders as Mathieu asked if there were any more questions, before directing the group back out to their waiting bus.
Crouched in thick, tropical undergrowth, Monty instinctively shrunk back as the clank of swap treads accompanied the glow of approaching lights, just below the far rise. Night had descended over South America's east coast and, with the darkness, the Blackers had ventured forth, travelling far inland from Kourou in order to skirt around the Centre Spatial Guyanias, then following a graded but unsealed jungle track up toward its western boundary. Stopping short of where that intersected the road between the spaceport's separated Vega/Ariane and newer Soyuz facilities, Jethro had dropped his girl off, before retreating back a safe couple of clicks lest their large, white four wheel drive draw unwanted attention. From there, it had taken her a good couple of hours to hack a course through dense vegetation to a creek running roughly parallel to the centre's boundary fence, then south along that's bed to her current position, just opposite another small thicket on the secure side of the wire.
Between it and her however lay open ground, traversed by the rough, muddy track used by French Foreign Legionnaires patrolling the perimeter in Bandvagn low ground-pressure vehicles. Beyond that, atop an embankment, lay the high construction of chain link and razor wire which formed the CSG's first line of defence. To her left, across the road to Soyuz and inside the compound, she could see the abandoned Ariane 4 buildings, occasional lights burning in the office blocks not yet vacated for lack of funding. Further to the north lay more lights, twinkling against inky darkness, belonging to the Vega area and beyond those, the open, floodlit Ariane 5 launch pad.
None were somewhere she particularly wished to end up. Where she did want to go lay almost directly in front of her, the top of its tall structure visible above trees and fencing, the Bâtiment d'Assemblage Final.
The trick of course would be getting there to begin with.
Now the clank of treads rose louder, and the girl watched cautiously as a Legion vehicle crested the rise to her right, trundling ever closer, powerful headlamps illuminating red earth ahead of it like day. Fortunately, despite previously haven proven a frustration to nocturnal travel, the undergrowth here was dense, and Monty's charcoal outfit did a good job of blending her into the shadows. In all reality she had waited far too long, but unfortunately the Blackers' timeframe had not allowed the luxury of proper preparation; like timing patrols. Instead, both she and her handler had agreed their best bet would be for her to wait until a patrol went through, then attempt an incursion; in the largest window between passes they could possibly create.
The next problem from there of course would be getting from the far stand of trees, across the open land of the spaceport to the BAF, but that was a problem for the future, one bridge at a time for now.
Rising to a mechanical crescendo, the Bandvagn clattered by, and as it dropped out of sight into the next easy gully, Monty was up and scrambling across its muddy wake. Making it to the fence she quickly looked both ways for assurance she remained unseen. So far, everything seemed so good and, moving back a few steps, the cyborg mustered her artificial strength to hurl herself over the top of the razor wire. Landing on the other side she kept upright rather than rolling, it would not do to leave muddy marks all over the rocket she was supposed to be covertly sabotaging, and sprinted again for the trees.
Pushing again through undergrowth she fought her way to the thicket's northern edge, where it butted up against the asphalt of Route de l'Espace. Down the road to her left stood a guard hut at the fence line, keeping watch over the track to Soyuz. To her right was launch control's bunker and, further on, the Ariane 5 Launcher Integration Facility. Somewhere behind the latter, a good half kilometre from the main road, was her final destination: the BAF. Unfortunately that made it too far to risk a foot journey over the exposed ground inside the centre campus. However, the Soyuz facility was still fully active, and people and goods had to be travelling to and from it somehow. She just had to hope someone would still be making the trip at this hour.
Nudging back the sleeve of her charcoal top she glanced at her watch in the moonlight: 2am, she was already pushing into the early morning of pre-launch day, cutting things far too close for comfort. In the next few hours the Ariane 5 carrying Moratti's satellite would roll out to the launch site for final checks and filling of its cryogenic main stage; and once it was there her chances of accessing the bird would be almost exactly nil.
Which meant she would want a plan B, just in case.
Across the road and just to her right loomed the darkened bulk of the decommissioned Ariane 4 integration facilities. Satellite photos showed the dilapidated complex stretching, albeit somewhat haphazardly, almost as far as the current launcher preparation buildings. As long as she could avoid the few still inhabited offices, it might offer cover far enough to find a culvert through which she could scramble across the road to Ariane 5 undetected. The plan wouldn't be perfect, and a trip down muddy concrete pipes was going to leave her at risk of leaving dirty marks all over Arianespace's nice clean floor, but it beat the alternative of not arriving at all. She could probably afford half an hour waiting here but then...
Monty's ears pricked up as, from the west, her acute hearing singled out the sound of an approaching diesel engine.
...assuming something didn't come along to save her the trouble
Freezing in place, the cyborg strained to make out what was going on at the guard station. Above the faint idling engine someone laughed, then a rev and whatever the vehicle was got underway again, trundling down the road toward the waiting girl, and as headlights approached she tensed; only one shot.
Unholstering her PPK, she double checked it had a round in the chamber, then edged forward to where the protective undergrowth ended, just as the 5 tonne truck rumbled past. She was up and running, thankful for the space centre's low internal speed limits as she caught the rear bumper and swung herself up onto the tailgate to roll over its top into the canvas tented tray.
Inside she found herself sharing room with a couple of 44 gallon drums and a large, metal tool box. Deciding those were not of interest, she turned instead to peek between fabric curtains at what passed by outside. Like Panama barely a fortnight before, French Guiana was much too warm for the getup she was wearing, and the truck's thick cover only made matters worse, turning the air stifling, thick with the smell of exhaust and lubricants. As the lights of launch control's bunker rolled past, she tugged at her collar in the hope it might let some of the heat escape, but too little avail.
The opening she looked out of was her only real source of ventilation, and all it mostly did was funnel turbid exhaust back into the load tray. Muting a cough, the cyborg grimaced; that she was just going to have to put up with as, more to the point, it wouldn't be far to her destination, and overshooting would have her much too close to the eastern guard post for comfort.
Outside, the dim outline of the Launcher Integration Building cruised by, that was her cue. Counting to five Monty slid over the truck's tailgate, dropping onto the asphalt and rolling to a halt. Quickly she was off the roadway, dropping down into the culvert outlet she had spotted on Google maps. Moving down the open drain she made her way to a t-intersection and turned left toward where the trench curved away south east, following the twin lines of rail used to transport the assembled launcher from its integration facility to the BAF, running along the embankment above her.
To the right, under the tracks, small diameter culverts allowed water to flow from one side to the other and, after the recent rain they, like the bottom of the drain itself were wet and muddy, forcing the cyborg to stay on the cutting's edge. It also meant she was most likely going to need to risk running over the embankment's top to this cutting's southern partner, rather than staying safely below the ground's natural level.
Scrambling up the earth berm, Monty poked her head out and looked around. Almost directly to the south, probably about half a kilometre away, she could see the BAF. Though its base remained in deep shadow, the top of the building glowed white under intense flood lights, creating a ghostly edifice, rising out of the darkness. Listening intently, the cyborg was unable to pick up anything approaching along the roadway behind her, and a quick visual check seemed to confirm she indeed remained isolated in the night time complex.
Hauling herself over the top of the trench, she bolted across the exposed ground, grass turning to gravel beneath pounding feet as she leapt the railway lines before dropping into the diversion drain's far side twin. Laying still against cool earth she listened again, but heard nothing bar the rustling of grass and scritch of ground-level wildlife. Probably clear then.
Following the southern ditch until it came to a sharp turn, the girl forwent her phone's camera and bright screen again, instead poking her head up to survey the area. Barely 100 meters away, separated from her by an open stretch of hardstand, the BAF's glowing bulk loomed over its would-be infiltrator, towering up into inky black skies. Inspecting the base of the building, her keen eyes found the entrance the fratello's tour group had used that day; there were probably other ways in, but she was short on time and that door was at least a known evil.
Holstering her pistol again, Monty instead extracted her lockpicks for quick access and checked her surrounds one last time.
Well, she couldn't see any better options.
Taking a deep breath the girl hurled herself from cover, sprinting low and silent out across hard concrete. Ahead the door grew larger, fifty meters, thirty, ten...
...she came to a screeching halt by the woodwork and, kneeling down, unrolled the soft leather wallet, setting about the door lock with two of the dull, blued metal tools it contained. The door's twin-array setup was not the simplest out there, but over her short lifetime the cyborg had enjoyed plenty of on-the-job experience. Soon she felt the last pin slide into place with a satisfying snick, and the tumbler twisted. Stowing her lockpicks again, she glanced up at the camera which stared unblinkingly down at her... and froze.
At first sight, what looked like a large twig or stick had wedged itself into the camera mount. Then it moved, and the girl's heart sank even further as the snake lifted its head to taste the air, forked tongue flicking in and out, moving further into the CCTV's field of vision.
She was trapped, exposed against the side of the building, unable to move out of the camera's view lest Ella cease its footage loop, cutting suddenly to the wrong picture.
This was why she hated relying on what the boffins thought up; it was all a great idea in theory, right up until someone actually tried to put theory into practice... then all the wheels tended to fall off.
"Piss off!" she hissed, attempting to shoo the creature away.
Unfortunately she was nowhere near close enough to take its interest and the reptile gazed lazily back, before curling tighter around the camera support. She hoped it didn't get too comfortable, and if it covered the camera lens she was in trouble as well. Looking around Monty searched for another option.
What's the old saying? "Never work with children or animals"? I've had both in the space of twenty-four hours.
Careful to keep herself in view, the girl bent down to pick up a piece of gravel off the concrete by her feet. Taking aim she slung the bit of blue stone with cybernetic speed and accuracy at her new friend.
That had an effect. The snake's head snapped backward, recoiling from the blow and, retrieving another stone, Monty repeated the process, forcing it back a little further. Reaching down again, she felt for more ammunition. Arianespace were careful to keep their hardstand area clear of debris, she was going to have to make this one count lest she run out of things to throw.
The next shot went wide, bouncing off the building's metal cladding with a rattle and skittering across the pavement. Though not a loud noise, in the stillness of the night it sounded like a thunderclap, and the cyborg winced visibly. Its follow up however didn't miss, and her reptilian adversary pulled back again, just out of the camera's view. Not wasting time, the girl slipped through the building's door, shutting it quickly behind her.
Stowing her lockpick wallet, Monty again withdrew the PPK. Through the inner door's window, light was streaming from the main hanger; that was fine as long as it was also uninhabited. Taking a moment to push her sleeves up and allow cool air conditioning to wash across her skin, the cyborg listened intently: no sounds of work, no clanks or rattles, no voices or taps of footsteps on concrete and metal. Creeping to the woodwork, she peeked through its glass.
The vast space beyond did indeed seem empty and lifeless as she had hoped; maybe Murphy had been kind enough to back off after his trick with the snake.
Or maybe he was saving up for something really special.
Either way, she had best be about it. Taking the doorknob in one gloved hand, the young agent slipped into the Ariane 5 final assembly area.
Deserted space or no she avoided the exposed steps to the top of the launch table, instead trotting around its circumference to the back of the building. Sparing a glance again for the yellow painted steel girders criss-crossing overhead, she discounted the idea; that was one for emergencies only. Instead finding the fire escape beneath it, she let herself in.
There had to be lifts somewhere, but the thought of being stuck in a confined box right now did not appeal, and she moved quickly up the concrete internal stair, doing her best to muffle footsteps in the echoing shaft, until a door appeared on the assembly room side. She hadn't been able to see any of those from the ground, so assumedly this first lead out onto the equipment bay platform. Cracking it slightly, she peeked through.
Sometimes it was nice to be right.
Sliding out the opening and past a neatly arranged work bench, the girl crept to where the access swung out over thin air, looking down the length of over fifty meters of rocket to check the floor below for signs of life. Up this high, the steel plating on which she stood should do a pretty decent job of concealing her from anyone below, but there was no point in taking chances.
A foot or two above where the platform butted up against the Ariane's body, a small hatch was open in its equipment bay's side, power and pneumatic umbilicals disappearing into the interior. Swinging herself through the opening, the cyborg followed their trail.
Inside the bay was extremely cramped, though well lit by the cold beams of work lights positioned at its circumference. All around her their bright, artificial rays sparkled off what appeared to be hundreds of circular protrusions on the inside of the bay's fairing. She had no idea what purpose they served, but the effect was reminiscent of the sort of fussy detailing one would expect at a high end club... or possibly inside a particularly odd disco ball.
That wasn't her concern right now however, and Monty's attention turned instead to the large, boxlike shape which filled the bulk of the space, supported by a conical adapter structure, extending from its base to the bay walls: Moratti's Mercury bird. Those fastenings seemed almost too light to hold their burden central against the forces of liftoff, but as the girl inspected the spacecraft more closely, it rapidly became apparent just how insubstantial it was. Folded in against two sides, covering the thin gold foil of its body, were two multi-panel solar arrays, concertinaed closed for stowage. On the two adjacent surfaces, large dish antennas formed white welts against the shiny surface, waiting to deploy on spindly arms, reaching skywards from servo drives near the floor. Of more interest however, high above at Mercury's zenith, she could just make out, disguised amongst antennas, the peering eyes of optics set proud of their surrounds...
Definitely not a pure communications bird then.
The question was: what to do now? She daren't work near the foil lest it tear and tip someone off, and trying to climb one of the fragile looking arms to get to the optics was out of the question: the plan was to covertly turn Mercury into a very expensive piece of space junk, not prevent its launch all together. That however left her limited options for accessing its interior. Making a circuit of the bird she glanced at her watch; this was eating time. Ideally she wanted at the optics, now well out of reach just below the fairing's tip, but the only hard-access she could get to without risk of doing visible damage was where the antenna arms joined into the bird's body. She gave a small shrug; those would just have to do.
Inspecting the fasteners for the panels there, the girl ducked back outside to the work bench she had passed earlier. Selecting an appropriately sized Torx ratchet she snapped a photo of how it had been positioned and returned to the equipment bay. Kneeling in the shadow of one of the folded deployment arms, the cyborg worked quickly to open the access she had chosen. Neatly arranging the screws next to her on the flooring, delicate hands moved diagonally across the thin metal plate until she could lift it and the ceramic heat sink built in away to reveal a group of heftily secured circuit boards. If her and her handler's read were correct, then these particular boards controlled guidance and power, crammed down here to make room for the bulkier and more fragile optics and communications hardware at the bird's other end.
Unfortunately, unlike some of her compatriots at the SWA, Monty was no electronics whizz kid; and the drawings she had managed to pull and peruse had not included amongst their number any circuit diagrams.
Which meant broad stroking things… she hated broad stroking things.
Turning slightly, the young agent eyed the floodlights illuminating the space she occupied: one of their power feeds should be plenty to fry the delicate circuitry. However the lingering smell of burnt electrics would risk tipping somebody off, and wholesale destruction of the boards would be too obvious for comfort as well.
Maybe there would be something outside she could use.
Back at the bench, Monty surveyed the detritus strewn across its top: more tools, a can of WD40 and circuit cleaner, three thick lever-arch folders assumedly pertaining to Mercury itself… those she eyed briefly, then turned away; she was a fast reader, but not fast enough to absorb all that right now… a pocket blow torch, insulation tape…
Grabbing the roll of black adhesive vinyl the girl moved quickly back to where she had been working. Picking up her borrowed Torx wrench again she removed the bracket retaining the far left board and jiggled it free. Then, unwinding a strip of tape and pulling it into a tight single layer, carefully covered the gold contacts which had hooked that component into the rest of Mercury's circuitry. Replacing the board, she bolted it back in and inspected her handiwork, using her iPhone to illuminate the dim interior of the electronics box.
Perfect, even to her eyes there were no visible signs of tampering and, as best she could make out from the literature, once a satellite was assembled inside the equipment bay under the eye of its owners, Arianespace took a distinctly hands-off approach until it reached orbit.
Withdrawing her phone, Monty looked at the circuit board's companions; this was going to take awhile. Then she glanced at her watch; a bit more of awhile than she was entirely comfortable with. However, there were times to search out a better solution, and other times to just cut your losses and get on with the job.
This particular instance, she felt, fell into the latter category. Starting to remove the next board, she set to work.
The girl moved fast, as fast as she could without getting sloppy. Fifteen boards, fourteen not counting the one she had already dealt with, four minutes a pop… give or take. As her watch ticked past 4am, Monty began to replace the heat sink equipped panel, working in a diagonal pattern again to prevent warping the light metal fixings. She was just torqueing the last fastener home as distant, spoken, French started to waft to her through the equipment bay's open hatch.
That wasn't what she wanted to hear.
Giving the little ratchet one final twist for good measure, she slipped quietly back to the work bench. Checking her borrowed equipment's positioning against the photo on her phone she set it back in place before, staying low to keep her outline from the view of those beneath, moving toward the edge of the platform. Hopefully all she could hear would be a couple of gendarmes or legionnaires doing an early morning security check.
Peering over the precipice to steel and concrete far below, the girl's heart sank. Stood in the middle of the space her tour group had occupied barely twelve hours prior was a small knot of people. One held a coffee, another a tablet PC along with a sheath of drawings whilst a third talked and gestured at the rocket before them, waving his own covered mug in the air. As the last pointed further up the Ariane's bulk, three hard-hatted heads following suit, Monty pulled back out of sight to assess her options. She and her handler had expected Arianespace's personnel to be early, particularly on the day before a launch, but not quite this early. She had to escape, and fast.
From the BAF floor came the noise of a door opening, and a cheerful greeting… those three down there were not just particularly early risers, everyone was starting to arrive.
Guess Murphy really had been saving up for a doozy.
Getting down was going to be the problem; the fire stairs may be safer than trying for a lift, but if some fitness freak decided to use those rather than wait for the elevator she would have absolutely no options; and the support structure at the back of the bay was much too open to risk above a busy work floor. As she swung around however her eye fell on the tall umbilical mast, rising from the launch platform below. The structure was enclosed, protecting the services it carried from each rocket's fiery awakening; surely it would have some kind of internal access to check those lines.
From behind the rear wall came the sound of an elevator motor, and the girl made her decision, scampering the length of the platform to fetch up against its handrail. It looked like she was in luck; another gantry jutted out from the wall, leading to, well, something around the mast's back; too far for a regular human to jump, but not for a cyborg... Which of course would be a moot point were she caught playing Ms. Marvel.
Behind her, the lift motor stopped.
Nothing for it, she was out of options. Doing a fast check of the area around and below, the girl took two steps back, then ran and leapt lightly, almost casually, out, sailing across the void to catch a hold of the flooring of her intended target. Sharp, non-slip grating dug into her fingers through thin gloves and she stifled a grunt of pain, but it had either been that or risk clattering onto the steelwork in a roll. Hauling herself onto the platform before anyone could look up from the assembly floor, Monty checked where she had come to. This gantry did indeed lay alongside the tower and, much to her relief, in that's metal sheeting were cut two vertical rows of small hatches.
Inside was dimly lit, service lines and two heavily insulated pipes running up the far wall of the structure, disappearing into the darkness above and below. Of more interest to the cyborg however was the ladder running the structure's full height, welded to steel on her right.
Swinging onto the rungs, she closed and secured the hatch behind and started to rapidly descend, stopping every dozen meters or so to listen. Each time she did, it seemed yet more voices had joined the hubbub outside; apparently the religious quiet which had left the tour group so in its thrall had merely been a calm before the storm. At this rate, sneaking out was going to be all but impossible.
Stopping for what seemed like the umpteenth time, she looked down: the floor was in sight now, metal decking inside the launch table now less than ten meters below her feet, lit by light spilling in from outside. Almost there, then all she would need to do was somehow sneak down the access stairs the tour had used and…
From somewhere in the building, a new noise cut across the chorus of human voices; a mechanical clank, then a groan and rumble of something extremely heavy, rolling on undamped tracks. Below her, the patch of artificial light which had been streaming onto chequer plate ran back toward the exterior, before disappearing all together. A knot started to form in the pit of the girl's stomach, if that had been what she thought it was, then she was in real trouble. Fighting down the urge to rush her next set of actions, Monty dropped silently to the ground.
She was in a small room, pipes and valves clustered along one wall, with banks of monitoring equipment facing them; Ariane's life support systems from here to its launch site.
A few meters to her right however was a door with a small window, where the light before had been entering. Now however it was just a dark portal. Staying low and close to the wall, she edged over to peek through.
Her earlier fears were confirmed. Instead of the brightly lit inner face of the BAF's massive shutters, outside was just the black of night, pressing up against where warm light from Ariane's assembly bay spilled out across the hardstand and ground immediately in front of the building. It could have been an almost pretty scene, minute people readying the fiery titan above her in the pre-dawn, had the practical upshot not been that her only exit was now far too exposed to risk attempting to sneak down: she was trapped.
Monty turned back to her new prison; if she was going to be stuck here then she had best be well concealed. Somewhere below her feet lay the computers controlling the remote interfaces for both rocket and satellite. Those rooms would arguably have made a better place to hide, but getting to them would require moving across the table's increasingly busy exterior; and that just was not on the cards.
A quick inspection of the equipment banks found them to be hard up against the room's metal wall and so of no use to her. However the cluster of pipes across from them were more promising, and a closer look revealed a small gap in behind which she may, may be able to squeeze into.
Unhooking the pistol and holster from the small of her back, the girl shoved both into a pocket and, sitting as close to a support as possible, swung her legs over so they slid down the narrow opening between pipes and wall. Finding the floor with her toes she let the rest of her body follow suit, turning her head sideways so it could also disappear behind the steelwork.
Not a moment too soon either and Monty rolled down her sleeves, covering light skin, pressing herself back into the shadows as voices stopped by the door. Peering from her recumbent position through small gaps, she watched as the metal hatchway creaked open to admit two men in clean-room garb, wielding powerful LED torches.
Talking softly to each other, the engineers set about the room's contents. Despite being a native French speaker, the hidden spy had absolutely no idea what was being said, their jargon creating its own subset of that dialect completely alien to those not of their profession.
Finishing on the equipment cabinets, the inspectors turned around to the piping opposite, beginning to check where the lines ran up to join into the umbilical mast, and work their way down. Monty barely dared breathe. In the tiny gap she occupied there was no room to move; if they spotted her then her options were be captured or shoot them both, either of which would blow the entire job. Doing her best impression of an empty space, the girl watched as torch beams moved closer, pulling her dark cap down to cover her face. They seemed to be less concerned about the centre sections of the lines, away from connections, so with a bit of luck...
Cold light flashed over where she was hidden then was gone, moving on to the far end flanges and seals.
Monty still remained on guard, every heartbeat seeming like thunder in her ears until she was again alone. Slowly counting off two minutes to give the engineers time to return for anything they had forgotten, she edged her phone out of her pocket and checked its encryption suite was enabled, holding it inside her hat to mask the screen's glow. She was safe, for a given value of safe, for now, but it would be best if she also let her handler in on the secret. While he wasn't generally one to come charging in at the first sign of trouble, it was likely to be a good few hours before she was able to move again, at least until the table reached the Ariane launch site. In that case it would be thoughtful to make him at least aware of her predicament...
Working quickly lest, despite her best efforts, the LCD's backlight give away her presence, the girl typed out a quick message to her partner and hit send.
Shifting restlessly to another, slightly different, position in the front of the fratello's rented Prado, Jethro worried. That was a ridiculous thing to do if he looked at it logically, but just right now it was, unfortunately, about the only thing he had to occupy his mind. He hated this variety of job, the variety where all he could do was sit around and hope his girl would return to him in one piece.
Not to mention he had now been worrying for slightly longer than he should have been.
Blowing the job he wasn't so concerned over; Monty had come a long way since innocent eyes first looked up at him from a SWA hospital bed. However the timeframe they had was limited, it was always limited, and as their experiences in Colombia had driven home, despite their physical strength and resilience, the cyborgs were still fragile beings.
From where it rested on the centre console his phone buzzed, and the handler just about dove for it, snatching the glass and aluminium sandwich up to peer at its screen.
Message from an unknown number: Will be late, don't wait up.
With that, a little of the tension left his shoulders, his partner was safe, at least for now, but delayed. The unknown number would be her iPhone's vampire app taking over someone else's digits nearby, which at least meant she was still in a position to disguise who and where she was, and the wording backed that up. The flip side of the coin of course was that, even had he considered replying a good idea, that option was barred to him: the message would have gone to someone else's phone.
The question now was exactly how late "late" was. Ella was set to eliminate itself from the space centre's CCTV system at five o'clock which was, he glanced at his watch, just under forty minutes from now. After that, Monty would be thoroughly on her own.
Not to mention they had a plane to catch.
Placing the mobile back down, Jethro Blacker returned to the only task he had available to him: worrying.
Cool morning sunlight was starting to filter in through the door's portal when a lurch of movement jolted Monty out of the half daydream she had been in, and the girl cursed herself for drifting off like that. Unfortunately, she had been on the go now for near on twenty-four hours, and as the adrenaline of her earlier infiltration and concealment started to wear off, she was having trouble staying focused.
Which was still no excuse.
Now however that focused energy was returning as, to the grumbling tune of a low-revving diesel, she felt the launch table begin to rumble slowly along steel tracks. On the upside, as long as they were on the move she could probably be reasonably certain of not being disturbed, and while the Ariane and its assembly could only really be going one place, part of her wanted to be very certain that was indeed their end destination.
Struggling into a position from which to extricate herself from behind the collection of pipes and data runs, the girl slid up the wall, before placing her buttocks on the top pipe and pulled her legs up behind her, swinging them to the floor on the other side. Not wanting to show her face against the door's glass however, Monty found a place from whence she could make the most of the portal's limited field of view, without leaving the shadows. Right now there was not much to see beyond trees and sky, but as the table continued its inevitable journey, the white tower and tall structures of the launch site's lightning masts slid past her view. Adjusting position slightly so as to get an angle on her destination, she kept an eye on it, moving gradually closer.
The young agent grimaced: going to the launch site was a mixed blessing at best right now. On one hand it was quite close to the space centre's perimeter fence. However, the ground on which it resided was very flat and exposed, which was why it had been on the "avoid" list to begin with… and "quite" was, as always, a relative term. The Google image had admittedly shown up a few drainage ditches she may be able to use, but they were all still open to the sky, and those working nearby would be at a significant elevation above ground level.
Either way, she would want to be back in her hiding place before they stopped.
There were still a few minutes spare however, and Monty remained looking out the window, burning everything she could see from here into her mind. Four tall lattice structures stood high above even the Ariane 5, heavy wire looping between them intended to draw in lightning from Guiana's inevitable tropical storms. Close to where the launch table would stop, the monolithic white services tower stood. Though she was still far away, Monty could make out a number of openings in its face, approximately in line with those she had used to enter the umbilical mast earlier.
That would explain a lot then.
Other than that, a few odd concrete structures poked up from ground level, her best guess being that they were part of the blast deflector system and, further afield, the water tower. That probably brought her close enough now, and the girl set about squeezing back into her hiding place to wait; muscles protesting at the proposition of being forced into cramped disuse once again.
There were other issues to be sorted out anyway. Having to operate in daylight notwithstanding, by now Ella would have wiped itself from the CCTV network. While the young secret agent was no stranger to dodging security cameras, neither she nor her handler had been able to reconnoitre the launch site section of the spaceport, leaving her uncomfortably short on details regards what may be waiting there.
As the table came to a gentle halt, Monty pulled her cap down again to help hide her skin in the shadows. Cameras were a problem for the future, one though which would not need dealing with should she be captured beforehand, so right now she needed to stay out of sight until some sort of opening presented itself. She doubted that would be for awhile yet; but assumedly even space centre workers took a smoko. Ideally she'd wait until dark to leave, but the fratello's flight was slated for late afternoon, and missing it would be one more irregularity they didn't need next to their names. Still, if morning break for the CSG landed around the usual 10am, they should be able to make it in time.
She hoped Jethro wasn't worrying too much. More concerningly perhaps, the longer he remained in place, the greater became the chance of his being found and asked awkward questions, and were he forced to move, meeting up again could get... complicated. There were not many publicly accessible roads near the spaceport complex and, even if she ran, making it to one of them and then to the airport before their plane left would be almost impossible.
Her partner would figure something out... she just had to do her part and get to him.
Laying motionless in the dark, Monty counted heartbeats as the hours ground slowly by, listening to footsteps clanking past on the metal above and around her, joining voices echoing down the umbilical mast's hollow core. At least this room benefited from air conditioning, one upside perhaps of needing to keep the whole launch system as reliable as possible, and therefore within its optimal working temperatures. Unfortunately, that also made the room somewhere to escape the heat and humidity outside, and the girl was forced to keep herself pressed back into the shadows as visitor after visitor took a few minutes respite.
As the hands of her Heuer climbed toward 10am however, the refugees, voices and footsteps started to tail off, before finally disappearing all together.
In the dark, the cyborg lay still, listening hard. Nothing, nothing close at least... a good five minutes of nothing.
That was going to have to do. She wasn't sure how long the workers' morning break went for, but it couldn't be long. Extricating herself from her hidey hole again, the girl pushed up charcoal sleeves and slunk to the door, taking her phone in hand as she did so. Staying hidden, she raised its camera just above the sill line and took a quick series of shots to build a panorama of what lay outside.
Pocketing the mobile again, Monty reached up and edged the steel hatch open a crack to peak out. Finding the platform outside uninhabited she quickly slipped through, closing up behind herself, and slunk across the deck to peek over its edge.
With the area below seemingly also free of spaceport employees she paused a moment to take stock of her situation. A wide vista of clear ground fanned out from the raised launch site, stretching all the way to the fenced perimeter, beyond which inviting jungle beckoned. Towering over the scene on her left, its white bulk at odds with natural surrounds stood the Ariane launcher, mist forming and falling away from its flanks as the main stage's cryogenic tanks were filled, chilling it below freezing in the humid air. Level with the blackened platform on which she crouched, the rocket's engines pointed into deep pits which would direct their blast safely away from the rest of the spaceport.
The blast tunnels.
On either side of the launch pad, sprouting away from it at forty-five degrees, two massive concrete jet deflector outlets dealt with the exhaust from the launch vehicle's boosters, channelling their fires up to ground level for dispersal. However, angled directly between them was a smaller, part covered, concrete lined trench, cut deep into the earth for the main motor. Small was of course again a relative term, but if she stuck close to its walls it may just give her cover away from the paved area ringing the launch site and to the huge open drains which drew rain and sound dampening water runoff to the spaceport's fence line.
Scampering to the burnt, charred side of the platform she was on, Monty checked she was still clear and clambered over the railing. Dropping silently to the deck below, she moved to look down into the dark void beneath the rocket's tail.
That was a long way down.
Still, beggars could not be choosers, but they could lessen the drop. Swinging again over the launch table's final protective railing, the girl found what she was aiming at and stepped off. Twisting in the air she caught the lip of a concrete girder carrying one of the platform's rails, coming to an abrupt halt and smashing against the trench's solid back.
Hanging by her fingertips, she looked down past her own feet to where the concrete floor curved up to meet the wall against which she lay. The surface was pitted and worn, bearing the scars of launches long past. That was going to make touchdown difficult, but she had committed to this course of action the moment she stepped off the table.
Taking a deep breath, Monty let go.
Wind rushed past her, concrete blurring as she fell down its face. Then it curved outward and she was landed, half running, half sliding down the slope, eyes desperately trying to find any obstacles in murky darkness ahead as it curved to a shallower and shallower gradient.
She almost made it.
One deep pothole, covered in soot and disguised against the blackness caught her foot and she was pitching forward into a barely controlled tumble, bouncing across the hard, damaged floor. Sliding to a halt the girl was upright quickly, dusting herself off. High above she could still see the business end of an Ariane rocket, but ahead there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Lets just hope it's not a train.
Taking a step forward, pain suddenly lanced up Monty's leg; seemingly she had done herself some damage on arrival. Reaching down to tentatively prod at her ankle she winced again; that hurt. It didn't feel broken though, probably just bruised. Either way, the stabbing discomfort was already starting to recede as the cyborg part of her blotted it out and she hobbled off, sticking close to the wall.
By the time she reached bare earth at the end of the trench, her body's insistent registering of injury had disappeared and, peeking over the last remaining bit of concrete upstand, the girl scanned her surroundings and cocked an ear. Far off she could hear the sound of vehicles; one headed her way, probably engineers returning to the launch zone and, fainter yet, the clank of the Foreign Legion's treads, still dutifully patrolling the perimeter; a perimeter which now lay directly ahead of her, and just a few hundred tantalising meters away.
Unfortunately the most direct line between it and her was also the most exposed. Choosing a shorter sprint across the open ground, Monty instead dropped into one of the open drainage trenches, scampering fast and rat-like along its side, keeping herself off the sticky mud floor.
As she exited its end onto low, soggy ground, the sound of caterpillar tracks started to grow louder. Seemingly the Legionnaires had finished their far circuit and were headed back this way, that wasn't good. In this sag point, plant life was thicker than on the grassed compound, benefiting from a ready supply of discharge water and nutrients, but it was nowhere near dense enough to conceal her from a passing vehicle. Taking another step her shoe sunk into more of the soft earth; and she certainly wasn't going to be able to jump the wire off this either.
Moving low and fast, the girl made her way diagonally toward the fence, glancing repeatedly at the launch table behind, until the foliage around her began to thin again. Looking back to where she had come from a final time, the cyborg froze. On the metal platform, two men now stood, discussing something, gesturing up and down the Ariane; unfortunately, that also put her well in their field of view. She was probably safe for the time being by simple distance and tunnel focus but, even in their peripheral vision, any movement was liable to give her away.
Come on, leave. Go inside. Hide from the heat out here.
The clanking treads of the patrol vehicle were much closer now, probably just behind the next rise. She had made it this far, if the whole job came apart now...
To her immense relief, both men turned around, studying the tablet one held in the shade from their bodies.
It wasn't perfect, but it would have to do. One last, very fast check and Monty was up and sprinting for the fence. Making sure to takeoff on her good foot the cyborg launched herself over, staying as low as she dared, soles just kissing the razor wire of its top. Catching her landing in a roll she threw herself at the jungle, disappearing into its undergrowth just as the patrolling Legion Bandvagn crested the hill and came clattering down into the soggy hollow the agent had so recently departed.
A tap at his window jolted Jethro from his half daydream state, and as he unlocked their rental the rear door clicked open to admit his partner, looking somewhat the worse for wear.
"Glad to see you so concerned about my wellbeing."
The handler bit back the voice of worry which had been about to leave his lips. "I did say I would sleep in the car. How'd you go?"
Lowering the towel she had been using to wipe grime off her face, Monty shot him a small, but genuine, smile in the rear-view mirror. "Finished. If we were right, then all Mercury's going to wind up looking at is deep space."
Reaching back, the Englishman gave his girl's knee a squeeze and offered her a lopsided grin. "Then what say we get out of here?"
"Then what say we do. I need a chance to clean up, but if we intend to make our flight you had best put your foot down."
Following her advice, Jethro fired up the car, spinning it around in a tight circle to head back toward Kourou and the highway to Cayenne.
Eventually swinging off the dirt track onto sealed tarmac, he reached down to turn on the radio, as Monty clambered between the front seats into her normal passenger side position. Now appearing more her usual immaculate self, dressed in the white, deeply v-necked shirt and black pencil skirt of her "around the house" look, the girl turned the volume up as she set about tying a red scarf around her neck to transform the outfit into something publicly presentable.
"It is oh-nine-hundred GMT, and time for a news update, live from London. This is the BBC World Service. The European business community is reeling today after Italian billionaire Baldo de Moratti was reported missing from his holiday home near the Swiss town of Grindelwald..."
Monty's head snapped around to meet her handler's eye, but said nothing as the plum British accent continued with its report.
"...rescue teams have so far been unable to locate Moratti or his female companion after they failed to return from skiing twenty-four hours ago. The woman's identity remains a mystery. In light of the uncertainty over Moratti's whereabouts, Moratti Technologia Communicazione stocks fell, sparking a general downward trend, and European market analysts have raised concerns over the consequences of this blow to one of the few companies still seemingly unaffected by the Euro zone crisis..."
The girl cocked an eyebrow and her handler nodded. "Are you thinking who I'm thinking?"
"I think I might be."
Now Jethro returned his attention to the road, but kept talking. "An Italian national missing, under suspicious circumstances, in Switzerland..."
"We've only met the woman properly twice, and each time life seems to have taken a turn for the complicated."
To Be Continued...