Alerio took a pencil from behind his ear, steadied the clipboard, and squinted at the readout. “I told him to blow out the hydraulic lines,” he muttered, pulling the spectacles from the top of his head, rubbing one lens on the pristine sleeve of his lab coat then settling them on his nose. “I could just design a new system.” He chuckled to himself. “Wouldn’t that fry Corrigan’s potatoes.”
Footsteps thudded along the passage, and three men entered the engine room, led by the Martina Vega’s giant of a mechanic wearing stained overalls, the arms tied around his waist, and a once-white t-shirt streaked with grease and colored fluids.
“Hey, Al.” Corrigan grimaced. “Company.”
Splendid. Alerio propped his spectacles once more on the top of his head and didn’t even attempt Corrigan’s grotesque congeniality. “Gentlemen, there are cloth gloves in one box, and artificial ones in the other. Please do not touch any instruments or surfaces with your bare hands.”
The blue-uniformed men complied, one of them looking around and saying, "For an old boat, the Martina Vega sure has a pretty engine room."
A growl rumbled deep in Corrigan’s massive chest. The man quickly added, “A real pleasure to inspect such a fine, clean room.”
It was a limping conciliation, but it worked; Corrigan nodded once.
Alerio crossed his arms over the clipboard, and watched the Orpheus crew note the gauges, poke through the contents of parts-and-tools lockers, probe any space that appeared even remotely usable for hiding illicit goods. Even the in-use parts were checked for the tax stamp that declared them legally purchased—a stamp easily duplicated by an intelligent engineer and a skilled mechanic then branded onto smuggled or pirated parts.
One of the Orpheus crewmen, crouched beside a locker, closed and latched the door, removed his gloves, and stood. He paled, as if lightheaded from rising too quickly, and put out a hand to steady himself.
“No—!” Alerio lurched forward, but too late.
Bare skin, with its oils and other contaminates, met the gleaming, sensitive surface of the air intake grill. The purifier’s faint healthy hum became a whine.
“I—I’m sorry.” The Orpheus crewman leaned over and used his wadded gloves to scrub at the handprint that had already tarnished the grill.
The whine became a wheeze.
Alerio held up a hand. “Go.”
“The Vega is just this side of a wreck. Modern tech is a lot less touchy, and far more durable.”
“Get. Out. Of. My. En. Gine. Room.”
Corrigan wagged the wrench that seemed permanently attached to his fist.
The inspectors stripped off their gloves and dropped them into the cleaning bins on the wall near the door.
Corrigan followed the men, but only after slapping a screwdriver into Alerio's palm. “New grills in the top locker. Forgot to tell you.”
c. 2008, Keanan Brand