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