The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Fifty-One

Saturday!  Time for another chapter!  So here we go.  🙂

If you enjoy this chapter, please do pick up a the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Fifty-One

Hub

Past the hub access doors was a wide expanse of open air.  In a different environment, it would have been impossible to navigate.  But in zero-g, it was child’s play to push off from the doorway leading into the lift and propel themselves outward.  Or rather, inward.

As many times as she had been here over the years, the central corridor of the station – of all five stations, really – always took Jo’s breath away.  It stretched apparently endlessly in both directions with only the transport tubes in its center to break up the hub’s expanse.  In eight locations around the hub’s circumference, constantly moving as the ring they led to rotated, were pairs of matched doors, identical to the ones Jo and her party came through, but no one else was immediately visible.  The area was well-lit by lighting bolted to the walls in every direction, but still it seemed a place of mystery, as odd as it was compared with normal existence on board ship or planetside.

Jo looked back as they floated toward the transport tubes in time to see the doors they had passed through close, sealing them in.  There was no turning back, even if they had been so inclined.

It only took a few moments to reach the central transport tubes, and Jo was relieved to find a transport sled waiting ready to receive them at this level’s station.  The sleds were designed to move cargo as well as people, and it only took a few minutes to latch the loader in place, along with its cargo, and then the four of them strapped in to the couches in the forward area of the sled.  A few seconds later, after Jo selected their destination level on the control console, they were off, heading “upwards” toward starliner level three, where fate awaited them.

The acceleration was impressive.  Jo felt herself pressed forcefully against her couch, a familiar sensation that very nearly matched the force she felt on initial liftoff from any number of launch complexes, except that this acceleration lasted a fraction of the time.  She barely had time to register the force and brace herself against it before it was gone, and the sled had moved from the station into the transport tube, hurtling toward its stop several kilometers away.

In just a short couple of minutes, the sled’s brakes fired and it veered off of the main tube, causing Jo to once again brace herself against acceleration forces, although this time she felt as though she was going to fly forward out of her seat and past the sled’s bow.  And then, just as soon as it came, the acceleration was over and the sled coasted to a stop at another station, identical to the one they departed except for the large sign that read, “Starliner Level 3A” off to their right.

They sat there for a moment, in silence.

“I can’t believe they let us get this far,” Jo said finally.  She had been more than half-convinced that they would meet nothing but the ends of rifles as they emerged from the hub access doors.  The fact that they had made it this far without molestation was amazing.  Troubling.  What was going on?

“Maybe they did not expect us to get out of the lift,” Malcolm replied.  Though his tone and expression were doubtful in the extreme.

“More likely they’re lying in wait ahead,” Thomas said as he and Grant unclipped from their restraint harnesses and kicked themselves up out of the sled.  They both unslung their rifles and panned about, looking down their sights carefully for threats.

Jo frowned.  They had a good point.  Chandini certainly would have had a backup plan at the ready.  It went beyond naiveté to expect anything else.  Given that near certainty, though, Jo felt a surge of guilt.  She and Malcolm would be blasting away onboard Agrippa.  The brothers would be left on their own, to fend for themselves.

To be imprisoned or worse.

She shook her head.  She could not be a party to that.  Unhooking her harness, she kicked herself upward to join them.  “You two stay with the sled,” she said as she became level with them and placed her hand on one of the sled station’s support girders to halt her ascent.  “Malcolm and I will take it from here.”

The brothers gave each other long looks, then Grant spoke.  “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”

Jo glanced between the two of them.  They both looked resolved, serious as hell.  “There’s a lot more trouble here than we planned on,” she said.  “I need to keep going, but you don’t have to.”

Grant just laughed, a bitter but strong sound as he looked at her as though she was daft.

Thomas sniffed.  “You don’t get it, Jo.”  That was the first time he had ever called her anything other than Captain or Ma’am.

Jo quirked an eyebrow at him.

“Jervis did not assign us to this; we volunteered.”  Grant nodded agreement, but let his brother speak for them both.  “We’ve always wanted to do something important, and this…”  Thomas spread his hands and trailed off.

Silence loomed for several seconds, and then Grant, glancing with momentary chagrin toward his brother, took up the conversation.  “First Contact,” he said, his voice awed.  “This is something we – all of us, all of humanity – have been dreaming about for centuries.  And now it’s happened and our dumbass government is going to fuck it up.”  He shook his head.  “We can’t let that happen, not even if it means we…”  He swallowed and shrugged, looking down at the sled and its cargo.  “Well, you know.”

Thomas swallowed and nodded.  “We’ll see you to the ship.  No matter what.”

Right then, Jo could have kissed them both.  As it was, she felt tears welling up, unbidden.  This was not what she wanted.  They were young, just getting started, with so much to look forward to.  It was too much, what they expected her to accept from them.  How did that old phrase go?  The last full measure of devotion.  That was what they were offering; likely what all of them would give, herself included, and likely without achieving their goal.  She could accept that for herself – she had come to peace with it somehow, sometime – but not for them.  She had no right to do so; it was her burden, not theirs.

She shook her head, but Malcolm spoke from behind her, stopping her protest.  “We all knew what we were getting into, Jo.  You’re not alone in this; never have been.”

Grant nodded, smirking.  “Look at it this way.  Someday, they’ll name high schools after us.”  He looked aside at his brother, then his smirk became a peaceful smile that he turned to include her and Malcolm as well.  “All of us.”

She almost broke down then.  Almost.  But years of training, and especially her years as Captain, came to her aid.  She steeled herself to calm and wiped the budding tears away before she realized what she was doing.  They were right, of course.  And even if they weren’t, it was too late to turn back now.  There was no way any of them, even the brothers, would get off the station without a fight, or at all.  Might as well get about their job then.

Jo inhaled deeply, then nodded.  “Ok.  Let’s head out.”

* * * * *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Tuesday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Fifty

It’s almost not Tuesday anymore, but I just remembered it’s chapter day.  So here we go.  🙂

If you enjoy this chapter, please do pick up a the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Fifty

Stuck In A Box

Silence reigned for a minute.

If no one said anything, maybe that would make what had just happened not be real.  Or maybe everyone else was as stunned as Jo felt.  More than likely the latter.

And why not?  One moment they were hurtling toward the station hub, their goal in sight and getting closer by the minute.  The next they were stopped, thrown up from the floor by the force of their stopping.  It was enough to put anyone off her game.

Finally Malcolm spoke up.  “Maybe it’s a mechanical problem.”  He neither looked nor sounded like he really believe that, but he really hoped it was true.

Grant snorted loudly.  Thomas was a half-second behind.  The looks they gave Malcolm were dubious, almost scornful, as though they could not believe he would say something so stupid.

“I think we all know that’s not what happened,” Jo said.  She slid off the loader and walked to the lift controls, near the doors.  The control panel was dark, lifeless.  It was not going to work.  All the same, she hit the button for the hub level.  Nothing happened.

Jo stepped away from the panel and frowned.

“Now what?” muttered Thomas.

“At least the lights are still on,” Grant replied.

As though his speaking had somehow jinxed it, the lights picked that precise moment to flicker and for a moment Jo thought they were going to extinguish completely.  Then the small display screen at the top of the control panel flickered to life, revealing a woman’s face.  She wore a satisfied smile and her eyes shone with victorious glee.  Jo recognized her immediately.

Chandini.

“You’ve led us a merry chase, Captain Ishikawa,” Chandini said.  Jo blinked, surprised at the audio, before she remembered the speakers mounted in the lift’s walls, to accommodate those who desired music through the several-minutes-long trip from the ring to the central hub.

Jo did not bother to answer; there was no way Chandini could hear her, regardless.

The Deputy Director surprised her, though.  “No need to pout,” she said, her smile growing just a tad bit more broad.  “We’ve been waiting for you for some time.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Grant said, from Jo’s left.

The Director’s smile did not flinch, but her eyes darted toward Grant.  “It means, Mr. Gilford, that there were only a few courses of action left to the good Captain, and only one place to turn if she followed the most illogical option.”

They must have rigged a microphone in the lift somewhere.  But where…  And then Jo about smacked herself.  The emergency call button.  There had to be a microphone in there, else the passengers could not call for help if something went wrong.  Stupid.  But then, Jo had felt stupid a lot lately, so why should this day be any different?

Chandini’s eyes turned back to Jo.  “You did not actually think you could get away with something like this, did you?”  She definitely sounded amused.

Jo found herself crossing her arms over her chest, defensively.  “I sort of did, yes.”

The Deputy Director smirked.  “I’ll be seeing you shortly,” she said.  Then the screen went dark.

*  *  *  *  *

“Fuck me,” Grant said.  “How the hell did she know who we are?”  He looked at Thomas, who shrugged, spreading his hands helplessly.

“Maybe your organization in Brisbane is not as secure as you think,” Malcolm offered.

The brothers both cast baleful looks at him, but said nothing.  From the expressions on their faces, it was clear they were not dismissing Malcolm’s conjecture out of hand.

“Never mind all that,” Jo snapped.  “They’ll be coming.  If they don’t just bring the lift back down on remote.” By now, they were well above the ring’s upper levels.  It would be far more efficient to just bring the lift back down, and given they had the ability to stop it, Jo could not see why they would not do that very thing, and quickly.  “Any ideas how to get out of this?”  Lord knew she was coming up blank.

Grant and Thomas looked at each other and frowned a similar frown.  Right then, except for the fact that Grant had a goatee and Thomas was clean shaven, they could have been looking in the mirror, so similar they looked.  Neither spoke; it was like they were working out the details by telepathy or something.

But there was no time for that sort of thing.

Apparently Malcolm felt the same.  He raised his plasma rifle and fired a shot into the control panel.  It blew out in a shower of sparks and slag.

“Well that’ll help,” Thomas said in a wry tone.

“More than you might think,” Malcolm said.  “The internal relays in the controls interface with interlocks in the station’s transit control system.  If those relays are not functioning, they won’t be able to order the lift back down.”  He paused, frowned, then shrugged.  “Or at least, it will take a bit longer for them to be able to do it.”

Jo blinked, surprised.  She did not know that.  Where had Malcolm learned it?

He noticed her expression and quirked an eyebrow at her.  “Engineer, remember?”  He grinned in a self-deprecating manner.  “We don’t get the sexy shore jobs you pilot-types get.  I did a stint or two on these stations, back before I joined you on Pericles.”

“Right,” Grant interrupted.  “Not to spoil the stroll down memory lane or anything, but…”  He left off the rest, but his meaning was clear.  What the hell does that have to do with us getting out of here?

A very good question, and from the smug look on his face, Jo suspected Malcolm knew the answer.  He grinned and gestured toward the ceiling, where the hub access doors were situated.  “Shall we get out of here then?”

*  *  *  *  *

By the time the lift would have reached the station’s hub, all of the ring’s centripetal g’s would have gone away completely.  That meant the doors to the lift could be placed anywhere, since everyone and everything within would essentially be just floating around.  Given that, it made perfect sense to place the hub access doors in the ceiling and keep the ring access doors on the side walls.  Personnel and objects could simply float into the lift from the hub, and as the rotational g’s built up, slide down one of the walls to the floor.  By the time they reached the ring, they could walk or be pushed out, just like on any lift planetside.

Which was all well and fine, except that now neither set of doors opened to much of anything much of use.  The side doors just faced the side wall of the lift shaft, and the hub doors pointed up.  A long ways up.  But that was where they needed to go, so…

“You want us to climb up the rest of the way,” Grant said.

Malcolm nodded.  “There are access ladders along the shaft, between the chutes for the lift cars.”

“What about that thing?” Thomas said, nodding at the incubator, resting on the loader’s twin arms.  “Can’t exactly haul that up a ladder.  It weighs a ton.”

“No, it weighed a ton.  Down there.”  Malcolm pointed downward, toward the floor and the ring below.  “Here, it’s about half that, and it’ll be less the closer we get to the hub.”

The brothers looked dubious, but Malcolm was right.  It could work.

“We’ve got rope,” Jo said, coming to Malcolm’s aid.  “Two of us can climb to the next landing and pull while the other two lift up from below.  It will be difficult at first, but…”

Thomas snorted.  Loudly.  “It’ll be well past difficult.”

Malcolm spread his hands in a helpless gesture.  “Do you have a better idea?”

*  *  *  *  *

Thomas was right.  Difficult did not even begin to describe it.

Even at about half its normal weight, the incubator still had to weigh a good thirty or forty kilograms, easily.  Grant and Thomas, lifting together, could get it up fairly well, but they could only reach halfway to the hub access doors, and later less than halfway between landings of the ladder.  That left Malcolm and Jo to haul the delicate machine the rest of the way.  They took care to use two strands of rope for redundancy, and to tie it off securely enough that the thing was not going to leave the rope’s grip for anything short of someone coming up and actually cutting the rope with a knife.

All the same, for the first several landings, the only thing Jo could think of was what would happen if they lost it somehow.  The incubator would fall, and fall far.  Depending on how they lost it, it could actually fall into a neighboring lift chute, so it would fall all the way to the ring, to its certain destruction.  Even the shorter fall to their stranded lift would likely damage it badly, and after several landings the height became such that it was probably academic which fate would be worse for the incubator.  Jo did not even want to think about that; about what it would mean to, well, to everything.

Fortunately, the higher they got, the lower the g’s.  After a dozen or so landings that required what was probably excessive amounts of effort to bring the incubator up, the device’s weight had lowered to the point that just one man could lift it up from below, and then haul it up from above.

Regardless, all things considered it was tiring work, both physically and mentally.  But finally, after what seemed an age but was in reality probably less than an hour and a half, they made it to the top of the shaft.  There they paused at the hub access doors to catch their breath, and to consider.

“They’re going to be waiting on the other side of these doors, you know that,” Thomas said.

Jo nodded.  In all likelihood he was entirely correct.

He frowned.  “I don’t have much practice fighting in zero-g.”  Thomas glanced at his brother, who shook his head.  He had no training in it either.

“If it’s any consolation, you probably have more idea how to go about it than I do,” Jo replied, earning a look in return that said it was not any kind of consolation at all, and thank you very much.  She shrugged.  “I don’t think station security usually trains for zero-g trouble either, so we’ll be on equal…”

Malcolm snorted.  “Really think it’ll be station security coming after us?”

Jo paused.  He had a point.  The NSA had not involved locals before; they would want to keep things hush-hush, so they would use their own goons.  Probably the same goons, actually, so there was a good chance it was Moore waiting for them.  Did they train for zero-g combat?  There was no way to know, and Jo would accomplish nothing sitting around bellyaching over it.

It was time to go.

Jo took a deep breath.  “Alright, let’s move.  Remember, we’re heading to the transport tube in the center of the hub.  The transports have cargo mounts to carry the incubator, and will get us to the starliner levels in just a couple minutes.”

“Assuming they’re not shut down too,” Grant said.  Wasn’t he just a ray of sunshine.

“We’ll deal with that when we come to it,” Jo said, trying to sound confident despite the fact that her stomach was doing backflips in her belly from nerves.  “Everyone ready?”

Nods all around.

“Ok, let’s do it.”

She nodded at Malcolm, and he pushed himself over to the center of the access doors.  He tripped their actuating assembly, and a moment later the doors slid open.

* * * * *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Saturday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Forty-Nine

Another Saturday, another chapter.

If you enjoy this chapter, please do pick up a the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Forty-Nine

Ghost Town

The main corridor was deserted.

That was odd.  Jo checked her wrist chronometer.  1100.  It was far too early for traffic to have died down this much.  Where was everyone?

A chill ran down her spine as she looked left and right down the passageway.  It was wide, wider than any corridor on Pericles.  But then, the station handled a much larger volume of personnel and cargo than a starliner could ever dream of.  The ring they had docked in was large enough that the corridor’s curvature was hard to see unless you focused more than a few meters away; then, the slow upslope in each direction became obvious.  Past a few hundred meters in either direction, the floor met the ceiling, apparently, the portions of the ring beyond hidden from view by its curvature.  It was often disconcerting to the planetbound who were used to the ground, or the sea, curving downward in the distance, but to Jo it was natural as the stars in the night sky, even as far removed from it as she had been these last two years.

The corridor was illuminated at intervals by recessed lights in the ceiling and by lit signs labeling the passageways that crossed every few tens of meters.  Artwork from the various regions of Earth and of the other colonized worlds hung at regular intervals, and potted plants as well as the occasional sitting area gave the place a warmer feel than the uninitiated might expect from a space station.  But, just as people had long ago learned that it paid dividends to design starliner living quarters as comfortably and naturally as possible to increase morale and productivity, the same held true for stationary bases.  People simply responded positively to beauty, to natural things.  And so they were included.

Jo preferred to focus on the fact that it made life aboard more peaceful than on the practical reasons for doing it.

Not that it mattered at this moment.  The fact remained that the corridor should have been bustling with activity, or at least have some people scurrying to and fro.

“This is bad,” Grant said, echoing Jo’s thoughts.  “They must have locked down this section when we docked.”

That little chill in Jo’s spine became a icy shard of fear.  “What do we do?”

Grant exchanged a look with his brother, who shrugged.  Grant grunted and returned the shrug, then looked back at Jo with serious eyes.  “We go on.  Be ready; this could get ugly fast.”

With that, he stepped fully out into the corridor and turned right, moving at a brisk jog toward the lift, which should lie two hundred meters ahead on the left.  Thomas remained still for a moment, then gestured for Jo and Malcolm to get moving; he would bring up the rear.

Jo swallowed and drove the loader out into the corridor, following Grant’s lead.  Malcolm hurried to follow, walking briskly to keep up.

At each crossing passageway, Jo expected troops to jump out and ambush them.  But that never happened.  She continued along in her loader, driving at a pace that just matched Grant’s jog, and within moments they reached the lift leading to the station’s central hub.

It took a few moments for the lift to arrive in response to their call, giving Thomas plenty of time to catch up.  He looked tense, no less so than his brother.  Neither of them looked tense enough, though, to match the anxiety coursing through Jo’s veins.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” she said.  “If they’ve locked the section down, why aren’t they coming to get us?  Why is the lift working?”

Grant shook his head; he had no answer to give.  Even Malcolm looked perplexed.

“Nothing for it but to keep going,” Thomas offered.

That was the problem, though.  The lift was the only way to get to the central hub.  Oh sure, there were emergency access tubes, but they were merely ladderwells, and the hub lay a few kilometers above them.  It would be a difficult climb for an unencumbered person, even though the g’s would gradually reduce as they neared the hub and the centripetal acceleration from the ring’s motion faded.  But they were far from unencumbered; it would be next to impossible to haul the incubator up a ladder.  Maybe if its floating units, or whatever the researchers had decided to call the devices within it that had allowed the aliens to just push it through the air while it levitated off the deck, were still functioning.  But with those units removed…

That left just the lift.  More and more, the lift began to feel more like an invitation to arrest, or execution, than a passage to the station’s hub.

The lift doors opened; Jo expected to be looking down the barrel of a plasma rifle or a slugthrower.  Instead there was only the empty rectangular chamber of the lift itself.  She exchanged glances with the men, then drove the loader into the lift.  Again unto the breech, and all that.  The men followed, and the doors slid shut behind them.

A moment later, they sped upward toward the station’s hub.

*  *  *  *  *

The feeling of gradually reducing g’s was always disconcerting.  This was one aspect of space travel where the planetbound faired the same as starfarers.  No matter how long most people spent in space, whether in zero-g or simulated, they never developed a way to adjust to gravitational differences on the fly, without at least a few moments of disorientation.  Try though she might, school her mind though she had, Jo had always been one of those “most people”.  She found herself swallowing to put down a growing queasiness as she felt herself grow lighter and lighter; it felt like her breakfast was going to come up along with the rest of her.

She had never actually gotten space-sick, though she knew a fair number of colleagues who had.  But it sometimes took a large effort of will not to.  It did not help that she was already on-edge, nerves frayed.  For a moment the general nervousness she had been feeling erupted into terror – not of being caught or killed but of humiliation.  If she lost it here, she would never live it down.  Oh, Malcolm would never mention it.  And Thomas, at least, looked more than a bit queasy himself so he would understand.  But Jo was not sure she would ever be able to look at herself in the mirror again without flinching.

But it was going to happen anyway.  She was going to sick-up.

And then she left her seat as the lift came to an abrupt, screeching halt that almost lifted the loader from the deck, it was so abrupt.

Jo landed awkwardly, but not as hard as she would have thought because of the low g’s; she estimated without realizing she was doing it that she was at about one-half her normal weight.  All the same, the unexpected stop threw her for a loop, and for a few seconds all she could do was look around in confusion, her nausea forgotten.

“Fuck!”  Thomas summed the situation up nicely.

* * * * *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Tuesday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Forty-Eight

Another Saturday, another chapter.  Let’s get to it!

If you enjoy this chapter, please do pick up a the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Forty-Eight

Welcome Wagon

The craft rotated ninety degrees and Jo had to brace herself for a moment against the sudden acceleration.  This was always the worst part, the final docking.  Station Control’s guidance systems were always more jerky than when a pilot was running things himself, or even when the onboard autopilot handled ship’s guidance.  Someone must have left out consideration for the crew and passengers when he designed that algorithm; no doubt that designer had never been on a small transport craft, or cared about much except getting the code completed ahead of schedule so he could get the bonus stipulated in his contract.

Definitely a government operation.

Beside her in the cockpit, Carl winced as the thrusters fired to arrest the craft’s rotation.  “Hate this part,” he muttered.

Jo worked hard to keep an amused grin from her face.  “Shut up,” she said.  She still had to be in character, for his safety.

Carl shot her a withering glance.  He was good at this game.

Too bad they would never be able to sit down over a drink to reminisce over this one.  It would have made a good story to tell.

The craft lurched as the docking apparatus locked on from above.  Then the only sensation was that of a small forward acceleration as the mechanism overhead began to pull them into the waiting hangar bay.

Unlike larger ships, which could not be accommodated in a bay, orbital transport craft like Carl’s were always docked within one of hundreds of bays in the station’s administrative support rings.  It made onload and offload easier, with g’s in place and an atmosphere to breathe.  It also made for less of a jarring transition for the planetbound who travelled to and from the surface of the planet below.  For the purpose of this trip, their hangar bay assignment was ideal: number 657, on the “upper”-most ring, closest to the starliner mooring facilities.  The less real estate she and her team had to cross with the incubator, even bundled up so as to look like just another piece of cargo, the less chance they would be waylaid.

The craft came to an abrupt halt and a humming sound reverberated through the hull as the hangar bay doors slid shut behind them.  Then came a louder hiss as atmosphere – not Earth normal, but breathable for a good long time without bad side effects – flooded into the bay.  Then the craft slowly lowered to the bay floor, and the grapple released them and retracted into the docking mechanism proper, where it remained housed in the ceiling directly over the craft.

“Well,” Carl said, eyeing her with thinly-veiled contempt.  “We’re here.”

Jo frowned and shook her head, but kept the pistol pointed at him.  “I’m sorry it had to be this way, Carl,” she said.

In truth, there was no other way to have it, not without jeopardizing his safety.  But she hated to have their last interaction play out this way, feigned or no.  Because it would be their last interaction, ever.  Whether she was successful or not, whether she got the eggs onto Agrippa and away, whether the aliens killed her or not, whether she returned victorious to Earth, he would not be alive to see it.  Jo found herself biting back pre-emptive tears for the loss of such a dear friend.

Carl’s only reply was a cynical smirk.

Jo waggled the pistol at him.  “You first.”

He complied, getting up from his seat and leading the way back into the small passage between the cockpit and the passenger compartment, where the crew access hatch allowed ingress and egress.  Past his shoulder, Thomas, Grant, and Malcolm were on their feet at the front of the passenger compartment, waiting to get moving.

Carlton feigned shock at Malcolm’s presence.  “Malcolm,” he gasped.  “How?  Why?”  He looked between Jo and the once-dead man and managed to look convincingly dumbfounded.  She never knew he was such a good actor.

“It’s a long story, Carl,” Jo said, “and we don’t have time for it.  Open the hatch.  And then I must apologize, but we’re going to have to tie you up and leave you here.”

Carl reached out and activated the hatch controls at Jo’s command, but froze at the mention of tying him up.  He had been frowning for most of the last hour.  Now he was frowning.  Carl shook his head, but before he could say anything, Grant sprang at him from behind.  In seconds, the brawny Aussie had Carl pinned on the ground.  Less than a minute later, Carl was back on his feet, his hands bound behind him with zip-ties.  He worked his jaw slowly, his frown now an all out scowl.

“I’m sorry, Jo,” he said, softly.

That took her by surprise.  What did he have to be sorry for?

A moment later, she found out.

*  *  *  *  *

Through the open access hatch, the thud of booted feet running carried, followed by a terse shout in a deep baritone.

“The craft is surrounded.  Release the crew and come out with your hands up!”

The shouted command was like a smack across the face.  Jo had to stop herself from cringing away from the force it exerted on her psyche.  How?  She gave Carl a forceful look, the one she knew from experience would break even the hardest of space dogs from their silence.

“What did you do?”

Carl met her gaze for a moment, but that was all, before turning his eyes to the floor of the craft.  “I tuned the transponder to the hijacking code.”

“Son of a bitch!”  Thomas growled through gritted teeth; he looked ready to kill Carl right then and there.  His brother looked the same.  Malcolm was not far off.

Jo could sympathize, but she was in command.  She had to remain cool, in control if they were going to get out of this with their skins intact, let alone if they were going to accomplish the mission.

“Why, Carl?  You were going to be free to go your own way.  There was no reason…”

His snort cut her off.  He looked back up at her fiercely, his eyes narrow and burning with a deep anger.  “Like hell.  If I didn’t turn you in they’d find out.  They’d know, sooner or later.”  Jo opened her mouth to protest; they had given him all the cover he would ever need.  But he beat her to it.  “You’re leaving, Jo.  I have to live here, and I’m not going to do it as a fugitive.”  He looked away again, but Jo could tell it was more out of defiance than from shame.  “I won’t do that to Alison, or my boys.”

It stung.  More than that, it filled her with a fury that she had seldom felt before, and even then not in years.  But…

But he was right.

It was dreadfully unfair of her to ask this much of him.  She could run roughshod over the law, because she was leaving.  Malcolm too.  Thomas, Grant, Jörgen and Courtney, the others in CFL…they had all volunteered, decided of their own free will to join the cause, without having to be asked.  Carl and Alison though were content to live their lives in Boston and neither bother nor be bothered.  Until she had imposed on them.  The fact that she had no alternative did not matter; she had upset their lives, and she could not blame Carl for doing what he thought was best for his family.

She nodded slowly.  “I understand.”

The other members of her team looked at her incredulously.  All except Malcolm.  His expression had softened as Carl spoke, and he nodded at Jo’s words.  He understood as well.

“We’re going to have to gag you, Carl,” she said.

He nodded.

Jo looked at Grant.  “Do it.  Don’t make it too tight.”

The fighting man scowled and grabbed Carl by the scruff of the neck, then dragged him into the passenger compartment.  The soft sound of scuffling issued for a few seconds, followed by Carl crying out, “Ow” momentarily before his voice was muted by the gag.  After another brief period, Grant rejoined them next to the hatch.

He gave Jo a quizzical look in response to her glare.  “What?  He’ll be fine.”

Jo rolled her eyes.

Thomas had taken up position just inside the hatch.  He peeked out for a second, then hurriedly pulled his head back under cover.  “Half a dozen men,” he reported.  “Looks like station security regulars.  Riot Gear and rifles.”

Malcolm frowned.  The worry in his eyes mirrored Jo’s own.  “Can you handle them?”

Thomas just grinned.

*  *  *  *  *

Jo would not have believed it had she not seen it with her own eyes.

Grant and Thomas, working as one and moving with a speed and precision that she could not begin to comprehend, took down the assembled security forces with apparent ease.  One moment, the law men were ringing the craft.  The next, and almost before the two flash-bang grenades the brothers threw out had finished going off, they were down, unconscious, with their hands zip-tied behind their backs and their weapons gathered into a tidy pile at the base of the craft’s boarding ladder.

It was all Jo could do to avoid gaping like a schoolgirl.  As it was, she was certain her jaw was going to be bruised from striking her upper chest so hard before she could get herself back under control.

“How the hell did you do that?”  Malcolm sounded breathless, and as stunned as Jo was.

Grant smirked.  “Jervis didn’t send us along for our good looks.”  He did not have a scratch on him, and he was not particularly attractive, at least not to Jo’s taste.  But right then she could have kissed him, and his uglier brother too.

Instead she just rolled her eyes.  Or she would have, if she was not still looking from unconscious body to unconscious body in amazement.

Thomas broke her out of it.  “They’ll be sending backup.  We need to be out of here in three minutes or we’re screwed.”

“Right.”  Jo shook herself and slung her pack over her shoulder.  Then, holstering the plasma pistol she had held on Carl, she darted down the boarding ladder into the hangar bay.

It was not a spectacularly large space.  About twenty meters long and thirty wide, long enough to accommodate a basic orbital transport like the one Carl picked them up in, it nevertheless was as well-outfitted as the larger bulk transport hangars.  Along both side walls hung fuel hoses, hoses for O2 and water replenishment, and those for sanitary pumpout.  At the front of the bay was parked a mechanized loader alongside firefighting gear.

And, of course, there was a windowed-off control space, about five meters up the front wall.  It was fully manned, of course, and Jo could see a number of pale faces watching them with wide eyes.  Three pale faces, actually.  One of them, the supervisor, no doubt, was obviously shouting something, but the other two just stood there as though struck dumb.  And considering what Grant and Thomas had just done, Jo could not blame them.  Finally, the supervisor shoved one of the other two and punched down, probably activating a communications circuit.  He began yelling again.  Jo couldn’t hear him, but he was no doubt calling for help.

“Everything’s under control here, situation normal,” Grant said, his tone highly amused as he watched the supervisor’s antics from Jo’s side.

She glanced sidelong at him, perplexed.  He caught her gaze and rolled his eyes.  “No one remembers the classics anymore,” he muttered.  Then, more loudly, he pointed at the loader.  “Get that thing started up!”

Jo moved to obey and was halfway to the loader before she realized that he had given an order and she had taken it.  That was not right.  She was in command, not…

She looked back and saw that the three men were gone, vanished into the cargo hold in the back of Carl’s craft.  Of course, it made sense.  They were all stronger than she.  It would be difficult enough getting the incubator out of the craft with all of their muscles.  If Malcolm or Thomas were driving the loader instead of she, it might be impossible.

It still stung a bit.

Whatever.  There was work to do.

If you’ve seen one loader, you’ve seen them all.  That was what Jo had always thought, and she was not disappointed with the unit in their hangar.  Its controls were simplicity itself – and it did not require a database implant to start it, thank God.  In less than a minute, she had it running.  Thirty seconds later, she met the men at the bottom of the cargo ramp.

Between the three of them, they could just barely lift the incubator, but it was a good thing they did not have far to go to meet her, or they would have either dropped it or been forced to lay one end down and drag it to her.  Jo had no idea how delicate the incubator’s innards were – not very, she would wager, based on how well it had kept running through all the abuse the lab rats had put it through – but she knew enough about complex mechanisms to know they were designed to function at a certain attitude, and if you tipped them over or left them at a bad angle for long enough, that could cause trouble.

It was a moot point now.  After another few seconds of moaning and groaning, along with a goodly number of curses from all three men, they had the thing secured onto the loader’s twin arms.

There was no time for the wicked to rest on their laurels though.  No sooner had they gotten the incubator squared away than Thomas and Grant hurried over to the main hatch leading into the station’s innards.  Malcolm paused only to pick up a pair of plasma rifles from the small pile at the bottom of the boarding ramp.  He handed one to Jo and shouldered the other, then ran to follow the two brothers.

Jo put the loader in gear and floored it.  The damn things were not all that fast, but she easily caught up to the men as they ran down the adjoining passage toward this level’s central corridor.  From there it should not be too far to the access tunnel to the Station’s central hub, where further transport lifts would take them to Mooring Level Three, where Agrippa was docked.

It was all coming together.  They just needed their luck to hold out for a little bit longer.

* * * * *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Tuesday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

Instead of Writing…

I’ve been on leave since last Thursday.  You might think I’d be getting a lot of writing done while I’ve not been at work.  But you’d be wrong.  Here’s what I’ve been doing instead.

 

 

Family Room - Before

Family Room – Before

 

 

Family Room - After

Family Room – After

IMG_3015

Kitchen – Before

Kitchen Repaint

Kitchen – Mid-way

Yes, it’s that time-honored festival: the repainting of the house!  With a friendly neighborhood visit from the in-laws as well, of course.  Fun, fun.  The best part has been doing the kitchen cabinets.  A couple mis-steps and a couple arguments later we’ve almost got it.  And a good thing too, because I have to go back to work tomorrow.

So that’s what I’ve been doing instead of writing.  Just figured I’d share.

🙂

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Forty-Seven

The Pericles Conspiracy.  Chapter 47.  Hooyah.  🙂

If you enjoy this chapter, please do pick up a the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Forty-Seven

Gagarin Station

Carlton parked the company car in its spot outside the hangar and turned off the engine.  But instead of getting out, he sat there, staring at the building.  He was not sure how long he sat there – he normally kept the chronometer function of his database implant turned off because he was still not used to the text perpetually hovering there in his vision – and he did not care.

He had done his best to treat this morning like any other.  He got up at the usual time, went for his morning jog, had a hearty breakfast, and drove leisurely back to the airfield.  Just as he would – and as he always had – during any training flight.  But try though he might, the butterflies were now threatening to burst out of his stomach like the alien creature in that ancient screen play a buddy of his found, way back when.

This was no ordinary day.  No amount of pretending would make it that way, either.

Up until now, it had been all fun and games.  Sure, he had pulled a fast one on the company.  But all that had really done was net him a few extra hours in the cockpit.  Hell, that shell company – it could have been real for all Carlton knew – had even paid for the fake trial student’s lessons, so it’s not like he had cost Delta any money.

Now, though.  Now the shit got real.  If he got on that craft and piloted it up to Gagarin with Jo and her friends onboard, that was it.  Yeah, he had a cover story built into the plan.  Jo had made sure of that.  But even he could see it was flimsy.  The NSA would see right through it.

But would they be able to prove it?

Carlton snorted at his own thought.  The NSA did not need proof.  Not for something like this.  There would be no arrest.  No trial.  That would blow the whistle on the whole thing.  Most likely, he would just vanish.  And maybe Alison and the boys as well.

Right then, Carlton almost started the car back up with the intention of going to the admin building and blowing the whistle on the whole thing himself.  Let Jo and Malcolm fry, and to hell with those alien eggs; they were not his problem.  But the image of Alison’s face, the disapproval and contempt in her eyes when she learned what he had done – and she would – gave him pause.  He had given his word to Jo.  To Alison.  And damnit all, they were both right.  This needed to be done.

Carlton just hated being the one to do it.

Some time later, he inhaled deeply and flung the car door open, then stepped out.  It was time to get it done.

*  *  *  *  *

The preflight check of the craft’s exterior was routine.  The engine outlets, vertical stabilizers, ailerons and flaps on the wings, orbital maneuvering jets, and docking apparatus were all in good shape, as expected.  That much was good.  Jo and her pals had at least not made a mess.

Carlton smirked slightly and keyed open the crew access hatch, then waited while it opened and the boarding ladder folded out, smooth as silk.  Then he climbed up and began his check of the interior.

As normal, he gave a quick sweep of the small passenger compartment – empty, as to be expected on this flight – and then proceeded to the cockpit.  Settling down into the left seat, he inserted his Delta identicard and tapped the main console, and the cockpit displays flashed to life.  A quick scan showed all was as he had left it the previous night.  Fuel state was sufficient to get back to Luna with more than the required fuel reserve, let alone to Gagarin, in accordance with his flight plan.

Satisfied, Carlton tapped the console and called up the engine start procedure.  He was halfway through it when he felt a hard piece of metal press against his right temple.

“Do exactly as I say,” Jo said, her voice calm and cold.  Almost as cold as the metal of the plasma pistol she held to his head, but then Carlton had never particularly liked guns.

*  *  *  *  *

The atmosphere outside the cockpit windows changed quickly from a normal sky blue, to navy blue, and then to black as the craft propelled itself upward into orbit.  Carlton focused on that, and on his instruments, and tried to ignore the fact that Jo had not taken the pistol off of him since she first joined him in the cockpit.  Oh, she had taken it away from his temple – she had to so he could don his headset and talk to flight control – and settled down into the copilot’s seat.  But she had kept the gun leveled on him the whole time.

She had to, of course.  Every aspect of the flight was recorded, from power-up to power-down, by recorders within the craft’s systems and by audio and visual recorders in the cockpit and passenger compartments.  It would not do to make it look like Carlton was anything but her hostage, doing her bidding against his will, or he would be screwed in the post-incident investigation.  And there would surely be one.  Concealing the fact that she had gotten up to Gagarin with her prize in his craft would be nigh on impossible.  At least this way allowed a slim chance that he would not share in the blame.

Yeah right.  And pigs could launch themselves into orbit.

“You’re not going to get away with this, you know that,” Carlton said, trying his best to look and sound nervous but not out of control.  “Security will nab you as soon as we dock.”

“Let me worry about that,” Jo growled, and waggled the gun at him.  She was overdoing it a bit.

Carlton rolled his eyes.  “Put down the gun, Jo.  We both know you’re not going to shoot me.”

She glared at him.  “We do?  I can fly this crate too, you know.”

He snorted.  “When’s the last time you logged an hour in the pilot’s seat?  Fifteen years ago?”  He glanced sidelong at her.  “Longer?”

Jo’s lips compressed into a scowl and she did not respond.  She also did not lower the gun.

The console beeped and Carlton glanced down.  The display told him what he already knew from the lack of g-forces.  Orbital insertion was complete; the main engines were secured and the orbital maneuvering thrusters were powering up.  Right on schedule.  The familiar feeling of free-fall began to register in the pit of his stomach as the craft coasted along on its low earth orbit trajectory.  It was strangely calming, that little bit of queasiness.  Carlton had lived with it, off and on, for most of his life.  It was like an old friend, in a way.

This was no time to be enjoying zero-g’s though; there was work to do, and a hostage role to play.  Carlton tapped in the command to execute the burn that would place them on an intercept trajectory with Gagarin Station and paused, his hand poised over the Execute touch-button.  He turned his gaze on Jo again.

“This is nuts, Jo.  Think about what you’re doing.  I haven’t deviated from my flight plan.  There’s no need for anyone to know what’s happened here.  Put the gun away and we can forget the whole thing.  I’ll figure a way to get you back from Luna quietly.  Honest.  Mum’s the word.”

“I’m not alone.”  Carlton dropped his jaw open, affecting surprise, but Jo spoke again before he could retort.  “And even if I was, we both know what you said is not true.  You’re supposed to have an under-instruction.  Where is he?”

Carlton winced and looked away.  “That’s not really a deviation,” he began, but stopped when Jo snorted loudly.  Rolling his eyes, Carlton said, “She got space-sick yesterday and bailed.”  In spite of his situation, he shook his head and snorted out a half-chuckle.  “You believe that?  Kid never even bothered to go up once before signing up for orbital flight training.  Now she’s out a bunch of credits and I’ve wasted a lot of time.”  He sighed.  “But that’s why they call them Trial training flights.  Separates the serious from the wannabes.”  He looked back at Jo and his momentary mirth fled.  “Don’t try to deflect the subject.  What do you hope to accomplish with this?”

Jo just continued to stare at him.  She made a little gesture with her gun toward the Execute touch-button.

Carlton sighed and hit it.  The console beeped in response and the orbital maneuvering thrusters fired for a long several seconds before cutting out.  On the navigation display screen, the craft’s orbital track updated to reflect its new heading toward Gagarin.  Estimated Time of Arrival, fifty minutes.

It was going to be a long flight.

*  *  *  *  *

Every time he made an approach to Gagarin, or any of the other geosynchronous space docks, Carlton found himself unable to not stare in awe at the sheer size and complexity of the thing.

A starliner was one thing.  Pericles was about two and a half kilometers long, and she was an older model, smaller than the new Gorshkov class that started rolling off the lines while he and Alison were on Gliese last.  But, big as the starliners were, the station dwarfed them.  Large enough to dock a dozen starliners at once, with room left over for smaller private transports aplenty and a special section for military vessels, the station was probably forty or fifty kilometers long.  The thing could easily be mistaken for a small moon, if one was not looking too carefully.

A small and oddly-shaped moon, though.

The main living and administrative spaces were a series of six stacked rings, several kilometers in diameter and all connected to a central hub by a like number of support struts that also served as passageways.  Each pair of rings rotated slowly in opposite directions to generate g’s within the ring and null out the station’s net angular momentum, just like the rings on a starliner.  From the rings, the hub stretched out in both directions, one side pointing right at Earth, the other out into space.  The Earth-side of the hub contained the station’s reactor complex and planetary communications gear.  The other side contained the docking facilities, and was considerably larger.

The mooring apparatus was arranged radially, with four starliner-sized ships able to dock on each level.  The arrangement was ingenious: great clamps with four passages that locked into the ships from the bow and stern, linking up with each of the four airlocks in the starliners’ rings.  The clamps themselves were mounted on drives that turned them, and the rings they were attached to, in order to generate g’s within the ships and the transition area on the station.  This made loading and unloading cargo and personnel significantly easier.

Looking up as they approached, Carlton could make out a number of starliners moored there.  The sight made him heartsick for a moment.  He loved his life, and his job planetside, but there was something about just blasting away to see what lay out there, among the stars…

What the hell are you thinking?

Carlton glanced over to the copilot’s seat, where Jo sat.  She was no longer watching his every move, but she still held the pistol pointed squarely at him.  She was good at this; he almost forgot for a moment that it was all just an act.

At least for her part.  The closer they actually came to Gagarin, though, the more it felt like he really was the prisoner, the hostage.  He had been roped into this by her.  By Alison.  And they did have a point.  But damnit, it was so much to risk.  After this, he may as well dream of flying using his own two arms as ever think seriously about getting back aboard a starliner.  Or doing anything at all that did not involve the inside of a prison cell, if he was lucky.

You gave your word.

And that was why he had even blasted off with Jo aboard.  But now, just moments away from the intercept point where Station control would take over and guide the craft into its designated docking bay, that suddenly did not seem like a good enough reason.

Alison is thinking with her heart.  I need to think with my head.  For both of us.

He hated thinking what he was thinking.  But it was the only thing that made sense.

Carlton glanced at Jo again.  She was looking upwards and to the right.  He followed her gaze and saw a lone starliner docked on level three of the mooring rings.  Agrippa, he was sure.

She was distracted.  It was now or never.

The craft’s transponder controls were to his left, from Jo’s perspective behind the control stick.  Slowly, so as to not draw her attention with an obvious movement, he moved his hand from the stick to the controls.  Carlton swallowed, hesitated.  Either way, there was no going back after this.  Drawing in a quick breath, he changed the code entered into the transponder from 2570, which was what traffic control had assigned him, to 7500.

His craft had officially been hijacked.

* * * * *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Tuesday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

 

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Forty-Six

It’s time once again for another installment from The Pericles Conspiracy.  If you enjoy this chapter, please do pick up a the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Forty-Six

Airlift

Carlton blew the landing.  Blew it completely.  For a moment, he thought he may have blown out one of the tires, the landing was so hard.  A second later, with the craft slowing and responding to rudder commands as normal, he shelved that idea.  But damn, he had not landed that badly since…  Hell, not since before his first solo.

He was nervous as hell.

It had taken a lot of doing to get here.  He had filed half a dozen separate flight plans, all of them legitimate, taking students from Luna to Earth then to Gagarin and back with landings in ten separate airfields all across the globe.  It was all legal, and completely normal.  He had embarked on training flights like these countless times over the last year.

The only problem was there was no student in this flight.  The student did not exist.  Carlton had, with help from one of Isaac’s companies, completely fabricated the hopeful young man who was not flying this night, right down to his Social Security Number.  He even had a photo ID, somehow.  He was an average looking guy; he would go unnoticed pretty much anywhere in the world, which Carlton supposed was the point.  He was no expert, but all the documentation Isaac’s people created looked pretty legit, and impressive, to him.  The folks from the company had assured him that he was correct, and the documents would stand up to the deepest scrutiny.

It made Carlton wonder exactly what those people, and their company, really did for a living.  He decided he did not want to know.

“Delta Eight Seven Kilo Lima, taxi to parking on Charlie.”  The voice in his headset could have been any one of a thousand controllers, anywhere in the world, except for the Aussie accent.

Carlton acknowledged and steered the craft to the taxiway and then to a small hangar on the far side of the field.  Delta kept little hangars on most of the larger airfields around the globe, just for circumstances like this.  Training flights often landed late, requiring the pilots to spend the night, and leaving the expensive craft out in the open just invited mischief, whether from vandals or thieves or just bad weather.  Maintaining a hangar was relatively inexpensive compared to losing a transorbital transport, so it just made sense.

Ground personnel met his craft at the entrance to the hangar, which opened at an electronic command from the craft, and guided him in with their glowing batons.  Then they left him in peace to shut down and close up the hangar.  They worked for the airport, not Delta, and had no interest in what he did as long as he didn’t violate any airport rules.  Which was just as well, considering.

Carlton secured the craft’s systems and hit the keystroke that would close the hangar door, then climbed the stairs from the craft to the interior of the hangar.  As he did, the parallel between this night and the night, weeks ago, when he met Jo and Malcolm in Boston struck him.

The whole thing was just so surreal.  Was he really doing this?  He had meant what he said then: it was insane.  Morally correct, absolutely.  Necessary, very likely.  But insane nonetheless.  He was covered; there should be no way to link him to what Jo and Malcolm were up to, from what he could see.  But it was still a huge risk.

At least Alison had plausible deniability.  Worst case, she and the boys would be ok.  Slightly-less-bad case, McAllister had called periodically over the last year, trying to lure both of them back.  If it looked like the heat was going to come down, they could just…slip away on a starliner.

Maybe.

There was no sense griping or worrying over it now.  He had made a commitment.  Jo and Malcolm were relying on him, and if he backed out now they were screwed.  Completely.  He could not do that to them.

Squaring his shoulders, Carlton strode across to the door that led from the hangar to the parking lot beyond.  Next to the door was a trio of key rings hanging from small hooks.  Delta always kept cars for visiting aircrews to use to get to and from the hotel, if necessary.  He took a moment to log the car out using a terminal near the door then took one of the key sets, fished one particular key off another set, and exited the hangar.

Before he got in the car, he flipped through the keys, really just small cards containing encryption algorithms that would tell the door’s computer to unlock, and fingered the one that he had taken from the second set inside the hangar.  Then he shrugged and got in the car.

He drove away with the windows rolled down and the music blasting.  In the wake of his car’s passage, that one key, the key to the hangar door, fell to the ground and settled at the edge of the road.

*  *  *  *  *

Jörgen found the key after only a few minutes of looking.  The truly impressive part is that he never appeared to be searching for it at all.  He was simply walking down the road, slowly, but then it was late at night or very early in the morning depending on one’s perspective, and then stopped to tie his shoe laces.  When he stood up, a single infrared flash from one of the gadgets he wore on his belt signaled his success.

Jo lowered her spyglasses and whistled softly.  “He’s good.”  Like she did not know that already, after everything that had happened the last several days.

Beside her, Thomas chuckled, but did not reply.

The vans sat back a kilometer from the airfield’s fenceline, inside a small copse of trees that provided extra shadows and cover from prying eyes and passing aircraft.  The NSA surely had surveillance craft up, or would soon enough if they did not already, which seemed highly unlikely.  Jo’s team sat there for an hour before sending Jörgen out to clear the way, watching for even the smallest hint that security had been notified about them.  But again, the secrecy of the NSA’s operation at the Lab appeared to be working for Jo and her team.  In any other situation, every law enforcement agency on the continent would have been called by now, every airfield shut down or at least tightly monitored…

But doing that would bring up questions as to what was going on.  Questions that would be too hard to dodge, especially since the news media would inevitably descend on the scene.  No, just like the car chase in Quito, their pursuit now would be a job done strictly within the NSA’s confines.  Which gave Jo a significant advantage.  As long as she did not squander it.

Jo raised her spyglasses again and waited the second or two it took them to focus in on the hangar building.  Jörgen was fiddling with something next to the door.  Why did it take so long to unlock a simple door?  What was he…

The lights went out all over the airfield.

Jo’s internal monologue shut up.

“That’s the signal,” Thomas said, and started the van up.

Jo quirked an eyebrow at him, but did not argue.  Jörgen had said he would signal when the hangar was ready; she just had not realized it would be so dramatic.  That was certainly his signal.  But damn…

It was a good thing this airfield was not busier.  Many of the busier fields had control towers manned twenty-four seven, and grounds crews on call all night.  But they had picked this one specifically because the tower shut down, and with it the rest of the airport, at 01:00 each night.  No one would be around to notice the power outage.  And by the time everyone returned at 05:00 – just two hours from now, said Jo’s inner monologue in annoyance – Jörgen would have reset the lights and the only record of their outage would be on the electric bill at the end of the month.

Thomas drove slowly back through the copse and across a short field until he reached the road.  A short distance later, he came to the road leading to the airfield entrance and turned right, headlights off and driving by lowlight goggles, as he had the whole way from Camp Tycho.  It was still unnerving, but Jo found herself less fidgety over it than she had been.  Good timing on that, since she was about to leave the van behind for good.

They passed a darkened sign naming the field, and a low, squat building next to the control tower that Jo presumed was the airport administration building.  A quick turn to the right brought them onto a long road that circled the runway and led past a number of hangars and buildings containing air and space-craft maintenance, rental, and flight training facilities.  Or at least that’s what Jo presumed they were; that was the typical fare for businesses at airfields.  Somewhere there was probably a small cafe or restaurant, where pilots flying in from other airfields in the region could get their “Hundred Dollar Hamburgers”.

She found herself smiling as she recalled Carl bitching about that old monicker.  It made no sense, he always said, since no one had used dollars, or dinars, rubles, or whatever for centuries.  But just as seafaring terminology and tradition lived on in starliners and other spacecraft, so did other old time sayings elsewhere.  It was hardly surprising.  He never wanted to hear that, though.

Thomas stopped the van in front of the Delta hangar and secured the engine.  Wasting no time, Jo hopped out and pulled open the side door, allowing Courtney and Malcolm to spill out.  Both stretched for a moment, restoring circulation to limbs that had been squeezed between bags of equipment and half-empty jugs of fuel for several hours, while Grant pulled the second van in beside them.

No one spoke; they all knew what to do.  Grant, Thomas, Malcolm, and Courtney headed to the rear of Grant’s van and began unloading the incubator while Jo headed into the hangar.

She found the interior still dark and stopped just within the door, suddenly hesitant to proceed for fear of running into something.

“Jörgen?” Jo called, quietly as she dared.

The noise of someone moving in the blackness to her right preceded his voice by a second.  “Looks like your man did his job,” Jörgen said.

That was good.  Not that Jo expected Carl to lay down on the job, but in a caper like this…  She shook her head.  That did not bear thinking on.  All was well, that was what was important.

“Step to your right.”

Jo moved to obey instinctively.  Or maybe it was the tone of quiet command in Jörgen’s voice.  Or the fact that he had lowlight goggles on and she did not.  Regardless, a second or two after she moved, the light from outside, faint though it was, was blocked out by the forms of her teammates lugging the incubator through the door.  Like her, they paused a short distance inside the hangar.  Unlike her, they were panting.  That damn thing was right heavy.

The door shut with a solid-sounding click and then, a second later, the interior lights turned on.

Jo winced, blinking at the sudden brightness while her eyes adjusted.

“Fuck, man,” Grant snapped, his voice strained from the effort of carrying the incubator as much as from sudden annoyance.  “At least warn us!”

Jörgen sniffed, but remained silent.

“Come on, let’s get this damn thing loaded,” Thomas replied.

Carl’s craft had a cargo hatch in its underbelly.  It was lowered, forming a short ramp into the craft’s rear, where its small cargo hold lay.  It was, in fact, a very small cargo hold.  The incubator almost did not fit inside.  And wouldn’t that be a suitable bit of irony, if they went to all the trouble of stealing the damn thing only to be unable to make a getaway because they picked the wrong kind of vehicle?  It took several long minutes of grunting, cursing, and adjusting, but eventually they managed to get the thing in and secured.

Jo glanced at her wrist chronometer.  04:15.  That took a lot longer than she thought.  They were cutting it close.

“Thank you all,” she said to her team, and gave them a weary smile.

Somber nods, and a grin from Malcolm, were the only responses.  This bunch had never been particularly talkative; that was Jo’s only complaint about them.

“Do you two need anything?”

Jörgen glanced at Courtney and quirked an eyebrow at her.  She shrugged in response and turned her gaze to Jo.  “Just don’t screw the pooch up there,” she replied.  “Don’t want all my effort wasted.”

Jo could not help but smile a bit wider at that.  “I’ll try not to.”  She shook hands with first Courtney then Jörgen and added, “Be careful out there.”

They nodded and, without another word, turned and walked to the door.  Jörgen pressed the door’s control pad, and the lights turned off.  A moment later, the door opened and they were silhouetted for a second in the comparatively brighter light outside.  Then they were gone, and the door clicked shut once more.  The lights turned back on.

Jo breathed in deeply and turned to the remainder of her team.  “Right.  Let’s get onboard and get ready.”

* * * * *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Saturday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

Until next time, then.