The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Eight

I’m a bit late on this one, and for that I apologize.  What can I say?  We’re buying a house, and the last week has been pretty exciting.  Not as exciting as next month will be (we close on 20 November and then the annoyance of moving begins).  But exciting nonetheless.

Ahem.

Anyway.  I am posting The Pericles Conspiracy for all y’all to read here on the blog.  Two chapters per week.  Given there are 63 chapters in the book,  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 AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or  iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter 8 – La Casa Blanca

Another bar in Quito.

This one, La Casa Blanca, actually was an old white house in the southwestern suburbs of the city.  It was a charming construction, two stories tall with a wide wrap-around porch.  But when Jeremy stepped inside, the quaint charm was replaced by the usual modern accouterments.  The first floor had obviously been gutted to make room for the large bar in the middle of the room, and the booths lining every wall.  Swinging doors in the back no doubt led into the kitchen, and there was a spiral staircase leading upstairs to Jeremy’s right.

Even though it was a Sunday night, the place was bustling.  Every stool at the bar was filled, and several groups of patrons dressed in club attire stood around talking.  Waitresses moved through the crowd with practiced ease, balancing trays full of drinks or food over their heads as they made their way to the orders’ destinations.  Loud music, the kind with a heavy beat but not much in the way of melody, pumped out of speakers in the walls, and a few couples were dancing off to the left on a small dance floor.

Jeremy grinned.  This was his kind of place.

He arrived in Quito early Thursday morning, having flown through the night.  Bad turbulence prevented him from getting much sleep on the plane, but he had long since learned that the secret to adjusting to a new location or time zone after a long plane flight was to just stay up until normal bed time at wherever he found himself.  It made for a long and tiring day, but it did the trick.

All the same, he was just as happy to not receive word from his contact with the broad nose until this morning.  Jeremy had not gone out of the way to announce his presence in town, but he had not exactly hidden it either.  It was partly a test, to see if this guy was as good at ferreting out information as he seemed to be, but also a ploy to hopefully allow Jeremy time to rest before getting down to business.  It worked in both respects.

The note left at the front desk of his hotel was plain enough to not arouse suspicion, but sent a clear message.  Meet the contact here at 2330, in an upstairs booth in the back corner.

Jeremy mounted the spiral stairs and made his way to the second level.

It was quite different up here.  The beat from the music below thumped up through the floor, but the background noise was quite a bit softer, allowing people to talk without having to shout to be heard.  The lighting was lower, more intimate.  Tables were set up all around the floor, with lit candles in the center of each.  Ringing the room were booths that were separated from each other by high wooden walls that stretched nearly to the ceiling.  Each booth area had a narrow entryway and a curtain that could be drawn, blocking out the rest of the room.

It was easy to see why his contact had chosen to meet here.

Jeremy made his way through the crowd, noticeably more sparse than the one downstairs, and toward the back.  Several of the booths had their curtains drawn, but one in the right hand corner in back was partially open.  Through the gap in the curtains, Jeremy saw a figure sitting there, waiting.  This must be it.

Taking a deep breath, Jeremy slipped into the booth and pulled the curtain closed.

The booth was gloomy, the candle on the table having been extinguished.  The man across from him was tall, lean, with dark skin and short black hair.  He was dressed simply, but his collared shirt was freshly pressed and seemed to be made of high quality fabric.

The contact nodded in greeting as Jeremy got settled, then pulled a small device out of his pocket, set it on the table, and pressed a small button on its top.  Jeremy had seen that sort of thing before: a bug jammer.  It would disrupt any electronic listening devices in the immediate area.  And make the voice and video recording functions in Jeremy’s database implant useless.

The man obviously saw the look of chagrin on Jeremy’s face, as he chuckled softly.  “Sorry for the inconvenience, Mr. Reynolds, but I can’t take the chance that you’re bugged.  And I don’t want any records of this meeting, even if they’re kept by someone as trustworthy as yourself.”

Jeremy thought he heard a hint of irony in the man’s voice, there at the end.

“You have some information for me?”

The man nodded.  “I was hoping to not have to meet you face to face.  If things had gone differently…” He cut himself off with a rueful shake of his head, “But then I suppose we both underestimated how stubborn Jo can be.”

The familiar way the man spoke piqued Jeremy’s curiosity.  “Ishikawa?  I’ve met far tougher than her.”

“Don’t be so sure, Mr. Reynolds.  She can be quite surprising.”

“You talk as though you know her.”

The man grinned, white teeth shining plainly in the gloom.  “I know her better than most.  In some ways, better than she knows herself.”

Jeremy shrugged noncommittally, and waited for the man to get to the point.

A soft chuckle said the man understood Jeremy’s silence.  He fished into another pocket and pulled out a portable televid unit, with a set of wired earbuds plugged into it.  Setting it on the table, he pushed it across to Jeremy.  “You’ll want to have a look at that.”

Curious, Jeremy put the earbuds into his ears, then picked up the device and pressed play.

 *  *  *  *  *

The video was obviously filmed on a hand-held, since the image bounced around periodically, but it clearly showed a half-ring of five people, all dressed in the light blue coveralls that starliner crews wear when underway, armed with slugthrowers and a pair of plasma rifles, facing a pressure door, with a sixth, a woman, standing ahead of the others.

“Alison, are you filming?”  Jeremy recognized Captain Ishikawa’s voice, and when the woman in front turned her head to look at the person filming, it was clearly her.

“Yes,” answered a woman whose voice he didn’t recognize, but he reasoned she must be Alison Hersch.

“Alright.  Malcolm, open the hatch.”

The camera moved over to a tall dark-skinned man as he pressed his hand against the door controls.  Jeremy blinked and pushed pause, his eyes flickering up to the man across the booth from him, the same man who was on the video.  The same man who had been cremated a year and a half ago.

“Malcolm Ngubwe?” he breathed.

Ngubwe nodded, and Jeremy felt a shiver go up his spine.  He pushed play again, and looked back at the televid.

The pressure door slid open, and Jeremy realized it was an airlock.  He should have realized that from the start…

His breath caught in his throat.  What the hell was this he was watching?  This couldn’t be real, could it?

On the video, four creatures, dressed in loose grey jumpsuits, waited in the airlock.  They were short, powerfully built, and not human.  They stood hunched on two legs, and had two arms, but there the resemblance to humans ended.  Even though they wore breathing masks, Jeremy could see they had features that made them look like cats: long snouts with sharp teeth and peaked ears atop their heads, short tails between their legs.  But they weren’t furry; instead their yellow-orange skin, streaked with green, shimmered as the creatures moved.  Were they scaled, was that it?

Captain Ishikawa said, “Welcome Aboard”, and one of the aliens…they could only be aliens…moved it’s hand.

Someone shouted, “OH JESUS!” and the distinctive sound of a plasma rifle being fired rang out.

The alien that had moved was struck and collapsed back into the bulkhead.  The video swung erratically as shouts ensued, along with a pair of menacing roars.  It was hard to see what was going on.

He heard Captain Ishikawa scream, “NO!  Stop!”

The video stabilized and centered on Captain Ishikawa, one of the aliens gripping her by her throat as it held her a quarter of a meter off the deck.  Its free hand was drawn back to strike, and Jeremy could see vicious-looking claws protruding from the tips of its fingers.

“Don’t shoot,” ordered Captain Ishikawa in a strangled tone as she waved for her people to stand down.

The video panned over to show a man Jeremy recognized as Carlton Hersch slowly lowering a slugthrower.  Past him, Ngubwe had another crewmember pinned to the floor in a submission hold, a discarded plasma rifle lying on the deck nearby.

The video moved back to Captain Ishikawa, and showed the alien peering at her closely, then looking around at the other humans, particularly Ngubwe and the man he had pinned.  Then, with a barking sound, it released her and retreated a step.  She slumped, clutching at her throat and coughing, but waved away an offer of support from Hersch.

The next several minutes on the video showed the aliens tending to their wounded comrade and helping him…it?…back through the airlock door, presumably to their ship.  Then two more aliens walked in, pushing a large black device that hovered in the air.  Hovered!  How the hell did that work?

The same alien who had earlier almost killed Captain Ishikawa now gestured for her to join it next to the device.  She did, with obvious caution.  The alien spent a moment showing her something on the side of the machine, some sort of control panel, Jeremy presumed, as it slowly lowered to the deck, then hovered, then lowered again as the alien touched different places.

The camera holder moved to get a better angle, and Jeremy was able to see that the device was topped by a transparent cover that appeared frosted over.  The alien made a vocalization that was a mixture of a hiss and a bark and pressed something else on the controls.  The cover cracked open, and fog that resembled melting dry ice issued from the device.

The alien opened the cover more fully and pulled out a small object.  A bit larger than a baseball, it was leathery, orange-green in color, and wrinkled.  The alien cradled the object close to its body and gave it a long, lingering, and strangely gentle caress.  Then, looking at Captain Ishikawa, the alien pressed its free hand to its belly.

Alison Hersch spoke, sounding almost shocked.  “An egg,” she said.  Jeremy heard at least one other crewmember gasp.

The alien replaced the egg into the device and closed the lid, which immediately frosted over again.  Then it pulled a long black device out from behind its belt.  It showed the device to Captain Ishikawa for a moment, then pressed it.  A three-dimensional image appeared in the air above the device.

Was that a hologram?  Amazing!

Whatever it was, the image was clearly a star chart.  It showed a flashing green dot, and a curved yellow line going to a small star not far away.  The alien pointed at the small star and a second line, this one blue, appeared, going from that star to a larger star system, quite a bit further away.  Then the alien pointed at Captain Ishikawa, laid its hand on the large device with the eggs, and finally pointed at the larger star system.

Captain Ishikawa shook her head.  “Sir, we can’t…”

The alien cut her off with a mixture of a growl and a whistle.  Then it pointed again from her to the egg machine to the star.  Captain Ishikawa sighed, and nodded.

Jeremy couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  Had the alien just asked Captain Ishikawa to take its eggs back to its star system?  Why?

On the video, the alien touched the device in its hand again, and the star chart disappeared, replaced by an image of that same alien, their Captain presumably, talking in its alien language of barks, hisses, growls, and whistles.  The alien only let the video go on for a short time before bringing up the star chart again and pointing at the distant star system.  That had to be a message for the aliens’ brethren back home.

The alien pressed the device again, and a single dot appeared, with a strange symbol next to it.  Then two dots appeared next to a different symbol.  Then three, four, all the way up to eight.  Then the symbols reappeared in various combinations, along with other, new symbols.  Finally what looked like an entire page of alien symbols appeared.  The alien waved its hand through the page and another page appeared.  Then another.  And another.

On the video, Jeremy heard Ngubwe’s voice, speaking in hushed awe.  “It’s their mathematics.”

The image in the air blinked out, and the alien pointed first at the device in his hand then, slowly, to each human crewmember in the room, even the man Ngubwe held pinned to the floor.  Then it held the device out to Captain Ishikawa, who took it with an expression of trepidation.

The alien then made another hiss-bark, and its only remaining companion turned and walked back into the airlock.  Once its companion was gone, the alien made a strange hand gesture and inclined its head to Captain Ishikawa,  Then it, too, turned and walked out of the airlock.

Jeremy heard a man’s voice asking, “Where’s he going?”

Then the video stopped.

Jeremy pulled the earbuds out of his ears, and they fell limply onto the table.  Was what he just saw real?  He looked up at Ngubwe, who stared at him with an earnest expression, and said the only thing he could think to say.

“Holy shit.”

*  *  *  *  *

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 AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or  iTunes.

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