Happy belated 4th of July, my fellow Americans! 🙂
I hope everyone had a great day, and are looking forward to a good weekend. I’m going to do my part to make it better, with another chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy.
Through The Front Door
The lift doors opened.
Beyond lay the antechamber leading to the two personnel access airlocks in Agrippa’s forward ring. Wide, spanning a good third of the loading ring’s circumference, and deep, a good hundred meters or more from the lift entrance to the far wall, it was for the most part open, save for a few structural columns at regular intervals, and brightly lit by recessed lights in the ceiling. Jo had seen the personnel staging area countless times, but it always struck her, in the hours before passenger loading, as a lonely place. Sad.
Today, it struck her as ominous.
On the bright side, the wide-open area made it nearly impossible for anyone to sneak up on her group, at least from within the area that was not rendered invisible by the ring’s curvature. But it also meant they would be clearly visible to any watching eyes. And there were many of those, lurking around. The company had myriad security cameras installed, covering every square centimeter of the area, or as close to it as they could. Same with the access tunnels she had just departed, and the lift. Jo had no illusions that they had somehow managed to sneak in here unobserved. Maybe if they had not been discovered earlier. But now…
For a heartbeat, she considered ordering Malcolm to hit the up button, retreating to Carl’s orbital transport, and fleeing back to the planet. Just as quickly, she dismissed that thought. It was foolhardy in the extreme. There was no chance at all that they could make it back to the craft without being intercepted.
If there was any hope, it lay in moving forward, toward Agrippa. Yes, she was at a disadvantage here, but if she could get through the airlock and aboard the ship, that all changed. With the access codes Jervis’ IT people had programmed in for her – codes that were, to any but the most intimately observant eye, authorized by Harold Jameson himself – she could render the ship impregnable. Or close enough to it. Close enough to get the thrusters and reactor online, and get them the hell away from here.
“We going or not?”
Grant’s words jerked Jo out of her reverie. She realized with a start that she was blocking everyone else’s path, her loader was so large. Flashing him an apologetic smile, she put the machine in gear and drove out of the lift.
She expected… Well, she was not sure what she expected. But silence and a complete lack of action was not it.
As she cleared the lift doors, Grant and Thomas surged forward, past the loader’s rear wheels and into the room. They spread out wide to the left and right, sweeping the area over the sights of their rifles. After a few seconds, they glanced at each other. Despite being separated by a good fifty meters, they seemed to communicate complete sentences with the slightest expression; a second later, Grant waved her and Malcolm onward.
Malcolm looked decidedly awkward with his rifle up against his shoulder as he walked alongside the loader, but he wore the grim expression of a man who means to do business with a weapon. Right then, Jo could not tell how much was feigned and how much real.
She depressed the loader’s accelerator a bit more, pressing the machine to greater speed toward the hatch at the far end of the room. It led to the extendable tunnel that linked up with the airlock in Section Four of Agrippa’s forward ring, Ring A. That was the section that housed the crew living spaces during cruise flight, and the alternate control station. From there, she would have the same controls as existed on the bridge, which was located on Agrippa’s hub. She could start up the reactor, engage the maneuvering thrusters, burn the main engines…whatever she needed. And it was only a few hundred meters away.
They advanced steadily, Grant and Thomas on the flanks, Malcolm at her side, the loader humming along nicely. As they drew within twenty meters of the airlock hatch, Jo imagined that they would meet no further opposition. That Chandini had been so flummoxed by their trick on the lift that she had not been able to re-deploy her forces in time to intercept Jo and her team. They were going to get aboard Agrippa, Grant and Thomas as well as Malcolm and her, and make a clean getaway, and then it was off to the stars, and no more worrying, no more grief and concern. She would return the aliens’ babies home and be regarded a hero by alien and human alike.
* * * * *
They were close, less than twenty meters away from the airlock hatch, when Jo heard it.
Booted feet. Running. And getting louder.
She glanced aside and, past the curvature of the floor, saw a flicker of movement off to the right. Looking left, the same, except the flickering became figures running toward her party. Figures that were dressed in black assault gear, body armor and everything, and carrying rifles. About a dozen troops total; more than enough to take her little group down.
Except Jo had just seen Grant and Thomas defeat a half-dozen men, men who were presumably well trained, without effort. Maybe…
The two brothers shot glances at each other, and Jo saw the hopeless resolve on their faces. They were outmatched and the brothers knew it. They did not hesitate though, bless them.
Grant shot Jo a hard look and shouted, “Go!” And then he ran forward to meet the troops approaching from the right. Thomas took left.
Jo wanted to tell them there was still time; they could get to the airlock before the troops reached them. But she knew the truth. Without something to hold them back, the troops would gun them all down well before she could get the door open.
So she floored the accelerator, and the loader lurched forward. It surged past Malcolm, who had broken into a run as soon as the troops came into view.
“Get on!” Jo shouted, and he obliged, leaping onto the side of the machine as it passed him.
If they had far to go, he probably would have fallen, as precarious as his perch was, but as it was they crossed the remaining distance to the airlock in just a few seconds. Even still, he looked relieved when he dropped back to the floor. Jo swung the loader around to put at least some of its bulk between them and the approaching troops and took it out of gear.
Just then, rifle fire erupted from Thomas’ direction and the loud THUMP of a flash-bang echoed from Grant’s. Jo looked and saw the two men crouched behind separate columns. Thomas’ troops scattered in the face of his fire, darting to find their own cover while shooting back, wildly from all appearances. Two of the men approaching Grant were down, stunned by the grenade. The remaining four split up, moving two by two toward his flanks.
It was not going to take long at all to overwhelm the brothers.
Malcolm grabbed her shoulder and pulled. She slid from the driver’s seat and had to catch herself to keep from sprawling out onto the floor. Irritation flashed through her, sublimating the fear that had reared up when she heard the troops coming. She almost gave him a tongue lashing, but the deadly serious expression on his face, the tightness around his eyes that bespoke his own fear, drew her up short. He was right, of course. This was no time to screw around.
She nodded to him instead and turned to the airlock control pad. He shouldered his rifle and sighted in on Thomas’ troops. Maybe he could help hold them off.
Malcolm’s rifle barked, but Jo paid it no heed. Fishing her old holocard from the cargo pocket on her thigh, she pressed it against the control pad. The pad flashed a message in red: security code validation required. Now was the moment of truth. Harold’s access codes should have given the IT guys all the clearance they needed to make her access codes work. It had been so logical; everyone agreed it would work, and their test runs had been flawless.
But it was one thing to hack into the system from afar so Jo could verify the codes worked on a remote workstation. This was something else entirely. If those codes did not work…
She wiped sweat from her brow and tapped in the ten digit alpha-numeric code: P3R!CL3S:). Not super-inventive, that. But it was easy to remember and appropriate.
The system seemed to process the code for hours, though in truth she knew it took less than a second.
The control pad flashed green and the doors began to open. It was like being thrown a lifeline while drowning. They were in. It was going to work.
Jo glanced over her shoulder. “Malcolm, come on -“ Her words stuck in her throat as she turned her head back to the now open airlock, and the tunnel beyond that led to Agrippa’s outer airlock door.
Agent Moore stood just inside the doors, dressed in black combat fatigues with her hair pulled back from her face. She wore a grim expression and had her plasma pistol in hand, held at the ready and pointing right at Jo’s head.
“Hello, Captain Ishikawa,” she said, in a tone that would freeze molten steel.
* * * * *
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