As promised, I’m going to start posting The Pericles Conspiracy for all y’all to read here on the blog. Right now, the plan is two chapters per week. Given there are 63 chapters in the book, you can do the math on how long I’ll be doing this. 🙂
So here we go. Of course, if you don’t want to bother waiting half a year to read the entire book, you can always go buy it (it’s available in ebook and trade paperback) from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.
Chapter One – Pickup Lines
La Chupacabra was almost empty. A few patrons sat at tables along the wall opposite the bar and two more were at the bar itself: a plump middle-aged man in dirty work coveralls at the near corner and, at the far end, a slender woman with short-cut black hair dressed in dark business attire. The bartender idly wiped down the taps halfway down the bar, and a lone waitress chatted with a patron at one of the tables. Vidscreens behind the bar displayed the latest headlines and sports scores, but the volume was muted. A tune from the middle of the pop charts played over the bar’s speakers, just loudly enough to make it difficult to hear a conversation from more than a few feet away.
He would have expected more business, considering it was hump day. Just two more days until the weekend after all. But he was just as happy for a sparse crowd. He hated having to search through a throng to find his mark. As it was, a quick survey as he paused at the tavern’s entrance revealed this evening’s objective. He smiled slightly and walked to the far end of the bar.
He paused as he reached the chair around the corner of the bar from the slender woman. He cleared his throat, but the woman already noted his presence, favoring him with a slight frown and a quirked eyebrow.
“Is this seat taken?” he asked.
She shrugged and looked away, back to the closest vidscreen, where, from what he could tell from the closed-captioning, some talking head was pontificating about what effect the latest elections on Centauri would have on interstellar trade.
Her choice of programming made sense, considering her occupation.
As he sat down, he was struck by the woman’s appearance. Ten year-long shifts as Captain on a starliner, plus the time to move up through the ranks to reach that station meant she had to be in her early to mid 50s at least. Still, he could have sworn she still had a few decades before she reached her middle years: she did not look a day over forty. Her bio said she was the product of a marriage between a Japanese man and an English woman. In his experience, women from east Asia tended to age well, but even still he was impressed.
The bartender sauntered over.
“What’ll it be?”
He noticed the woman smirk ever so slightly before taking a sip of her drink as the bartender moved back to the taps. He figured she would prefer to drink something more exotic from one of the colony worlds, but unless he missed his guess, she was drinking a Seven and Seven. Hardly the height of sophistication itself, and not exactly a perch from which to scoff at his beer.
“You ever study ancient history?”
She glanced back at him and rolled her eyes.
“I’m not looking for company right now.”
“Sorry. Don’t mean to impose.”
She sniffed and turned back to her newsvid.
A moment later the bartender returned with his beer. He accepted it with a smile of thanks and tapped the paypad on the bar. His database implant interfaced with the pay system and applied his standard tip rate automatically. The bartender looked surprised, then pleased, and voiced his thanks before moving away. Tipping well was often useful for opening doors, he found.
He sipped at his beer for a few minutes, watching the newsvid with only the vaguest of interest. It was a moot discussion; whatever effects the election caused had already occurred more than four years ago. Folks on Earth were only now hearing about it, of course. But whatever changes they made in response would also be extremely time late in reaching Centauri ears. So what was the point? Glancing back at the woman, he noted that she too looked a bit amused at the discussion. Of course, she would know the futility of it more than most.
Time to try again.
“So I was reading the other day about an ancient Athenian ruler. Guy named Pericles.”
She stiffened slightly when he mentioned the name, but quickly recovered, sipping her drink again without bothering to look at him.
“Is that right?” She sounded annoyed.
“Very interesting man.” He took another drink of his beer. “He took over while Athens was rebuilding from the Persian wars. He fostered the arts, built the Acropolis, endorsed Athenian expansionism. During his reign, Athens became the greatest political force in the region. But then, of course, he pressed too far. Made Sparta nervous. And so, the Peloponnesian War. He didn’t live to see it, but eventually Athens fell beneath Sparta’s military might.”
“Fascinating. Look, I really don’t want company, so…”
“I heard a story about another Pericles recently.”
She froze, her expression suddenly becoming wary. He continued on.
“Starliner by that name comes in from the Gliese system, just like normal. But there’s nearly a week’s delay in unloading the cargo. The crew is sequestered. Interviewed by government agents, they say. All but the fourth shift are out within a week. That shift’s sequestered for more than a month. Six months later, Malcolm Ngubwe, the fourth shift’s Engineer, dies under, shall we say, mysterious circumstances? Then that same shift’s pilot, one Carlton Hersch, and his wife Alison, the shift’s doctor, leave the starliner company for work planetside.” He shrugged. “Not so unusual, except he was in line for promotion to Captain. Strange time for a career change, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do.” He leaned toward her, noting her expression shifting from wariness to nervousness. “What happened out there to cause so much fuss, Captain Ishikawa?”
She swallowed, pulling away from him.
“Who are you?”
He tapped his thumb and forefinger and waited for a moment.
When nothing happened, he sniffed in annoyance. He figured she would have upgraded to the interactive database implant by now. She had been back long enough, and those implants made forgetting names a thing of the past. He always kept old-style holocards, though, just in case. Pulling one from his pocket, he slid it across the bar to her. His credentials were plainly visible: Jeremy Reynolds, Investigative Reporter, Star News.
She picked it up, her eyes narrowing as she read it. Then she stood, dropping the card onto the bar.
“I’ve got nothing to say to you, Mr. Reynolds.”
She turned to leave, but stopped as Jeremy grabbed her arm gently.
“There are rumors of a new strain of disease onboard. The public has a right to know the truth, Captain.”
She hesitated, then pulled away from his grasp.
“Good night, Mr. Reynolds.”
With that, she walked away at a brisk pace. She was out the door quickly, and never looked back.
Jeremy remained in his chair for several minutes more, finishing his beer and shrugging off the bartender’s quip about him striking out. There was definitely something there. And he intended to find out what it was.
* * * * *
As the door to La Chupacabra slid shut behind her, Josephine Ishikawa let out a breath she did not realize she had been holding. It had been two years, and she thought sure interest about her last shift on Pericles had died by now. Damnit, that’s all she needed, some reporter prying into things.
Muttering angrily to herself, she stalked to the lift at the end of the hall and punched the down button.
La Chupacabra was on the third floor of a commercial tower on the east side of town. Far enough from her usual stomping grounds that she was unlikely to run into anyone from work. Not that she didn’t like the people she worked with, but she generally preferred not to mix business with pleasure. Besides, she saw way too much of them when they were stuck together on a starliner, millions of Astronomical Units from the nearest rock.
A short lift ride later, she hit the streets.
Quito was the major hub for travel to and from low earth orbit in the Western Hemisphere. Its location, essentially right on the equator, was ideal. Add in its status as a political hub and its relative proximity to major shipping ports, and it was natural that, as mankind became a spacefaring species, it, along with Mogadishu and Kuala Lampur, would move into the limelight. That would likely change once the space elevators were completed; the western anchor point was further east, in Brazil, away from the fault line in the Andes. But that wasn’t scheduled for completion for another decade or more – a worry for a later time.
For the planetbound, anyway. But Jo, like other starfarers, had a different perspective on the flow of time than most people. In another two years, once Pericles’ overhaul was complete, she would hop aboard to Gliese once again. The next time she returned, though only two and a half to three waking years would have passed for her, Earth would have seen over forty. Some found that disconcerting; culture shock alone accounted for a large percentage of the Company’s attrition among new hires. But Jo found it fascinating, being able to observe the flow of history from a position outside the normal timeline. She very much looked forward to seeing the changes when she returned next.
But for now, she was here, and Quito was booming. Towering skyscrapers, filled with stylish and pricey condominiums. Fine restaurants on every street corner, catty-corner to the omnipresent Starbucks. Shopping establishments that ran the gambit from thrift stores to the highest of high-priced. Quito had it all, and with it, congestion. It wasn’t worth it to even try to motor yourself anywhere, even if it did not cost an arm and a leg to park.
A cab stand was situated a half-block down from La Chupacabra’s building. Jo flipped up her collar and hurried the short distance, hunching over in the early evening drizzle in a vain attempt to avoid getting wet. The forecast had been for clear skies, so she had not brought an umbrella. She should have known better than to trust the weatherman.
Fortunately, the queue was short and covered with a simple plastiglass canopy, so she was able to avoid the rain while she waited. Within a few minutes, she found herself settled into the cab’s passenger compartment. Fortunately, it was an older cab and still had a slot that accepted holocards.
She inserted her card and said, “Home.”
The cab acknowledged in a deep male voice and pulled away from the stand. Jo would give even odds whether the voice was from a voice-actor or just simulated. Either way, she suspected it was supposed to make a lady feel secure, or maybe sound sexy. She had heard the female voice that played for heterosexual male passengers. Hopefully they found her as silly as Jo found the male.
Settling back into the passenger couch, Jo watched the buildings pass, and her thoughts began to drift. She remembered the mixture of wonder and fear when Carl called her to the bridge and she saw what he had found. The exhilaration of applying her crew’s capabilities to an unexpected problem. The terror when it seemed like it was all falling apart, and then the relief when it didn’t.
She decided two years ago to put it out of her mind. Even without the security debriefings and non-disclosure agreements, she knew her part of the job was finished. There was nothing else she could do, and it wouldn’t serve any purpose to dwell on their encounter. Then, when Malcolm died, it was just one more reason to move on. She had done a good job of it.
The cab stopped, and she stepped out. Her building was a smaller condo complex on the south side, not far from the spaceport. More industrial, with less fancy decoration and greenery, it wasn’t a choice neighborhood. But she hated long commutes, so it suited her purpose.
Her condo was on the sixth floor. The ride up on the lift seemed slower than normal. Or maybe she was just more anxious to get home than usual. It had been a crappy end to a crappy day, and she wanted nothing more than to soak in the tub and hit the rack.
As she entered, the lights automatically turned on and soft music began to play, streaming from her favorite mix site. As the music started, the televid wall in her small living room lit up with a slideshow from Jo’s travels during her career in space. Vistas from a dozen worlds flicked past in time with the music. The eternal terminator on Gliese, where the famed Granite Trees with their massive trunks leaned far into the constantly-blowing hurricane-force winds and sent their branches with their hauntingly beautiful flowers straining toward the star that forever lingered on the horizon. The barren mountains of Barren’s Holdfast, accessible only in a suit and even then only with permission from colony administration and after extensive EVA training. The Vine Peaks of Talos, rising higher than a number of mountains on Earth and formed entirely by a single growing plant that housed its own micro-ecosystem and dozens of unique species. And countless others.
Jo smiled slightly as she took in the slideshow for a moment. It was good to be home after a long day, but there was where her heart truly lay: out among the stars, on a ship at her command.
Then her smile faded as a dialog box opened on the televid wall. There was a message from Harold Jameson, the Chief Operating Officer of the starliner company and her boss at the moment.
“Crap,” she breathed, and tapped the televid control pad.
The dialog box turned into an image of Harold, bald head and all, looking tired but alert. Seeing her, he perked up and scowled.
“Where the hell have you been, Jo? And when the hell are you going to get an implant?”
“Never. I don’t want a bunch of electronics in my head that will be obsolete by the time I get back from my next run in forty years.”
“Then why can’t you turn on your mobile, like every other civilized person on the planet?”
Jo rolled her eyes.
“What do you want, Harry? It’s late.”
Harold’s scowl faded, replaced by a focused, businesslike expression, with a hint of anxiety that only someone who knew him as well as she did would notice.
“I need you back here ASAP. We’re manning the ECC.”
Jo’s fatigue was instantly replaced by a surge of adrenalin, and annoyance. So much for her trip to Boston tomorrow.
“Wu Shin will fill you in when you get here. Hurry.”
The video feed switched off, and the televid switched back to the classical music playlist. Swan Lake began playing, along with a slideshow of landscape photos from the various planets she had visited during her time with the starliner company.
Jo left the condo before the first ten bars had finished.
I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. Stay tuned in a few days for the next chapter, or, if you don’t want to bother waiting half a year to read the entire book, you can always go buy it (it’s available in ebook and trade paperback) from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.