Time for the next chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. We’re coming near to the end here, and the action is picking up!
Round And Round
The Starliner levels were arranged differently from the ring levels. Each level was actually divided into two, about three and half kilometers apart. Level A attached to the bow of the starliner; B to the stern. Within each sub-level there were no rotating doorways, no rotation at all. Zero-g ruled until one actually reached the loading rings, which turned along with the starliner’s two living and cargo rings to generate artificial gravity in the loading sections of the station and aboard the starliner itself. Consequently, navigating from the sled station to the loading ring access tubes was a bit more complicated than from the station to the station rings. Once Jo’s party left the sled station, they had to maneuver around the outside of the transport tube complex until they reached their desired berth – Berth Three – and then they could push themselves “upward”, using guide cables to maintain their course, until they reached the access doors on the hub’s outer wall.
“This is terribly inefficient,” Grant muttered as they touched down, for lack of a better word, adjacent to the doors. “Floating cargo around like this?”
Jo smirked and gestured toward the hub’s inner wall adjacent to the doors. Embedded into the wall was a large conveyer-belt looking device, with davits where standard-sized shipping containers could be strapped. “No one ships large cargo loose, like we have it. It all goes into containers, and has a different access to the ship.” She gestured upward along the axis of the hub, where a few tens of meters away were larger doors that led into separate tubes, specifically designed to ship cargo into the loading rings, and then downward toward a separate set of connections that led from the hub wall toward a different sled station than they had used. From its size, it was built only for cargo containers. “The sled we took was for passengers, and for their personal baggage.”
Grant blinked. Then his eyes widened as his eyes tracked toward where she was pointing. At first, she thought he was impressed by the size and elegance of the design. Then he scowled, surprising her. “You mean to tell me we could have just hidden ourselves away inside a cargo container and saved all this sneaking and stalking and maybe getting shot at?”
Jo recoiled slightly, his irritation getting the better of her for a second. Oh, it was understandable, considering what he and his brother faced. But it was so wrong.
“There is no way to open those containers from inside, Grant,” Jo said as gently as she was able. He opened his mouth to protest, but she held up a hand, silencing him. “And they are all lined up a month or more before loading, and are all inspected. Even if we could have put ourselves into one and shipped it, we would either have suffocated within it or been killed by the scanning devices.” Those were particularly high-energy, and were the reason why one did not ship pets or other livestock aboard starliners, at least not as cargo. Each ship carried a small number of cryo-suspension units that could accommodate animals, but the waiting list to get into one of those was long.
And for good reason. The last thing one would want to do was to bring an alien creature onto a different world. Some number of pets or other domesticated animals were likely to escape, and they would have no natural predators on the new world. Even just a few members introduced from an alien species could have cataclysmic consequences for the world’s ecosystem.
Grant nodded slowly, the bitterness that had flooded into his gaze leaving as quickly as it came. He gestured toward Thomas, who pressed the control pad for the loading ring access doors. A moment later, with a slight gust of air as the pressure between the loading rings and the hub equalized, the doors opened.
Jo’s group proceeded onward.
* * * * *
The access tube stretched a kilometer or more away from the hub proper, running straight and true, and wide enough for a dozen or more people to float in file down its entire length. But now, as before, there was no one else visible anywhere. This was not so unusual; procedure dictated that the ship be cleared of personnel and only minimal personnel allowed within the loading rings during fueling and settling. And most of the loading ring personnel would be stationed within the cargo holds: security guards, inventory clerks, and the like. There would be no need for commuter assistance personnel until time to load the passengers next week. So Jo fully expected to encounter only electronically secured access doors the whole way into the ship.
All the same, for whatever reason, the lack of people made Jo nervous. Looking aside at her compatriots, she was not the only one. Time for a pep talk. She turned around to face the others, her momentum continuing to push her backwards toward the end of the tube. But Thomas spoke before she was able.
“They’re waiting for us up ahead.” It was a statement of fact, not a question. There was no doubt in his eyes.
Next to him, Grant had a similar look. Dread, but below that steely determination.
Jo nodded. “Only a fool would not have people stationed at the access hatches, and these people are not fools. Agrippa is the only starliner leaving in the next two months. Where else would we go?”
No one responded for a minute or so. Finally, Grant said, “Why not have them stationed on the ship itself?”
That was one thing that had worryied Jo to no end. If that were the case, there was a good chance they would never know it until far too late. Worse, they would never know whether they had cleared the ship or not. Even if they made it out of the solar system, they would potentially be placing themselves into cryo-suspension with hostiles onboard, ready to do them in while they were helpless.
Of course, that would doom the hiding troops to live out the rest of their days on a starliner that was hurtling off toward a far distant star. Jo found it hard to believe NSA people had the expertise to operate a starliner at all, let alone navigate it back to Sol. No, that would likely be a suicide assignment. Hard to motivate a person to take a job like that. Especially when one of those sexy warships moored a couple dozen kilometers above Agrippa could just as easily get underway and blow Agrippa out of the sky.
That was not likely, though. It would mean spreading word far and wide about what was going on here. Or maybe not. It would be easy to just make up a cover story that seemed plausible and give the order. To call what ran down Jo’s spine right then a chill was to call a glacier a little pile of snow. That was an angle she had not ever really considered before. She had presumed the NSA would keep this in-house, to avoid bad press and maybe to avoid losing face with other Agencies. But what if they deemed stopping her so important that they threw all that to the wind?
There was no way to know. And, frankly, she could not worry about everything; that would leave her incapable of taking action at all. An old friend had once said, “Sometimes you have to just grab sack and go for it.” Walter had always been a colorful guy, but off as his turn of phrase was, he had a good point. Fortune favors the bold, and all that. Sometimes there was nothing for it but to just go and give it your all, and see where things end up. Endlessly fretting accomplishes nothing.
Jo shook her head and replied to Grant, “Safety precautions, remember? No personnel are allowed aboard ship for another day. They would be putting their people in greater danger, and what benefit would they gain?”
Grant pursed his lips, considering. Then after a moment, he nodded. “Makes sense. Once we’re on the ship, they’ve lost a bit of the initiative, too. Best to keep us off the ship. And they’ll do that by meeting us at the airlock.”
“Ok then. We’ll hold them off long enough for you two to get aboard. I hope you have some way to stop them from following after that, though.” The implication was clear: he and his brother would not be around to offer resistance for long after shots started flying.
Jo swallowed, but kept her Captain In Charge face on full display. “As soon as we’re through, I’ll close all airlocks and break seal with the forward and aft loading rings. That should buy us enough time to initiate an emergency reactor startup and get underway.” She frowned, a thought occurring to her.. “You could come with us, you know. Four will not use much more resources than two. There’s no need…”
Thomas cut her off. “Don’t think we haven’t considered that one.” He and Grant exchanged a long look that ended in mutual shrugs. “If we see a way to make it aboard without jeopardizing the mission, we’ll take it,” Thomas said finally. “But don’t wait for us.”
There was not much left to say after that.
* * * * *
The remainder of the journey to the loading rings’ hub passed uneventfully. Just as with the station itself, the loading ring access tubes were arrayed radially, with the lift access hatches revolving slowing around the hub’s circumference. Also as in the station hub, there were separate lifts and accesses for cargo and for personnel.
Jo’s group took care to avoid the former in choosing a lift, and before long they were ensconced in a lift, smaller than the they had used earlier but still spacious enough to fit the loader in without too much difficulty. As always when entering a lift from the zero-g side, the wall seemed to come up and crash into them – gently – and they found themselves pressed up against it until they pushed themselves down to the lift’s “floor”. The g’s were not much, not yet, but they were enough to at least give them a sense of up and down. From the looks on Grant and Thomas’ face, that was quite a relief.
Agrippa’s rings were only a kilometer across and the loading rings had been sized to fit her, so the trip to the lower level and the main access airlocks placed was quite a bit quicker than the trip up the station’s ring had been, as was the increase in g’s. In just a couple minutes Jo found herself flexing her muscles and working her joints as they hit full Earth-normal acceleration. It felt good, but also a little awkward, even after such a comparatively short time in zero-g.
And then an electronic chime announced the lift’s imminent arrival at Deck One.
Grant and Thomas unlimbered their rifles and raised them to a ready position. Malcolm did the same as Jo hopped back aboard the loader and restarted its engine. It was time to meet their fate, whatever it was.
* * * * *
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