Holy cow! It’s Tuesday and I’ve actually remembered to post another chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy!
I think this may be a sign of the Apocalypse. Or something.
The relief Jo felt as she closed Agrippa’s inner airlock door was palpable, like she had been carrying a couple tons and suddenly threw them off.
It only lasted a second. There were still a thousand things that could go wrong, not the least of which involved the other troops boarding Agrippa through the second personnel access airlock. If they did not just come in through the cargo airlocks. Or the airlocks in Ring B. Or if they were not already onboard the ship. Or if…
Stop it. No time for this.
Jo turned back to the men. Malcolm was helping Grant down from the loader, which he had parked on the far side of the airlock access parlor. It took up a good chunk of the available room; Jo was fairly certain they were not going to be able to maneuver it through the ship’s corridors either. Starliners had a lot less interior volume than the Station.
“We don’t have much time,” Jo said, in her best no-nonsense Captain voice. “Get the reactor started up, Malcolm. Grant and I will secure the ship and get us underway.”
Malcolm nodded, his expression focused. She could tell he was already stepping through the startup procedure, re-checking in his mind which steps he could reduce or eliminate altogether, how to best trim down the amount of time needed to get them up and running. “I’ll be in touch,” he said.
And then he was off, sprinting down the corridor toward the lift to the ship’s hub and then to the reactor, two kilometers aft of the rings.
Jo did not stop to watch him go, but instead turned to the control workstation adjacent to the airlock doors. She brought it to life with a tap, then entered her access code. It had been too soon after using the code in the tunnel for it to have been compromised, or so she hoped, but all the same she experienced a moment of dread after she tapped ENTER, while the ship’s network processed it.
No need. The Command Access screen popped up, and she smiled with satisfaction. From this screen, she could access all basic ship’s functions. Some of the more specialized things, like starting up the maneuvering thrusters and the main engines, had to be done from the Bridge, located in the ship’s hub, or in Control, here in Ring A. But this screen provided all she needed for her immediate purposes. First thing, she severed the ship’s network connection with the station.
There. Now no one from outside could interfere. Or at least, it would take them some time to do so. Until she actually detached the Station Support Umbilical, there would still be a physical network connection, but it would take an IT type a fair amount of time to force a software link. Or at least that’s what Shani’s people had said. Here’s hoping they were correct.
“How long will the startup take?” Grant asked.
“I’m not entirely sure,” Jo replied absently as she tabbed through to the airlock status screen.
“What?” He sounded shocked, chagrined. “What do you mean you don’t know? Don’t you do,” he made a sweeping gesture with his hand, “this for a living?”
Jo chuckled and gave him a wry smile. “A normal startup takes four hours.” Grant’s jaw dropped open, a look of dread coming over his face. Jo continued before he could interject. “But we don’t have four hours, so Malcolm is going to use the emergency procedures, and skip a number of steps from them. He thinks he can have the reactor up in a half hour, maybe forty-five minutes.”
Grant swallowed. “If he doesn’t blow us all up.”
Jo shrugged. “There is that, yes. Don’t worry. Malcolm is very good at what he does.”
On the display, the remaining seven ship’s airlocks showed red – all were open. Jo frowned and tapped over to security, then called up the video feeds from the airlocks and their access parlors. All showed clear, except…
Jo’s heart skipped a beat. The troops were clearly visible in Ring A’s second airlock camera. They were sprinting down the tunnel, less than thirty meters out. In a rush, Jo tapped back to the airlock status screen and hit the command to close Airlock 2 and lock out its local controls. On the security feed, the doors began sliding closed. The troops redoubled their efforts, pushing themselves as fast as they could go.
“Come on,” Jo murmured. The door was almost closed.
With a final leap, the lead trooper hurled himself through the swiftly contracting space, landing inside the airlock a heartbeat before the outer door closed. On the security feed, he lay still for a moment, then he pushed himself to his feet and rolled his shoulder, where he had landed. Then he turned toward the control pad on the wall and tapped it.
Jo smirked. Good luck with that, buddy.
The trooper tapped the control pad again, and again, clearly growing agitated when it did not respond. Then he turned around and stopped cold.
Beside her – Jo had not noticed his approach – Grant snorted. “Didn’t think about the inner door, did he?”
Jo shook her head. “Apparently not.” She tapped the command to close the remaining airlocks, feeling quite smug for a second.
“We’re not going to just leave him in there, are we?”
The smugness faded. Grant had a point. If they left him in there, he would suffocate before too long; there were no standard ventilation ducts into the airlock, for obvious reasons, just equalization blowers. But did they dare let him aboard? He was just one man, but he could still make a lot of trouble. And fat chance he would just leave if they opened the outer airlock door for him.
“We’ll figure it out later. For now, we’re secure. We need to get the incubator and loader stowed, then get up to Control so I can get us underway.”
* * * * *
Agrippa’s Control room was more spacious than on Pericles, but the basic layout was the same: support workstations at the front of the room, facing the main display screens, and the command station at the rear on a slightly raised platform. Sitting in the command chair felt like coming home, even if she was stealing it. That thought did not feel at all comfortable, but she pushed it from her mind. Can’t make an omelet, and all that.
The maneuvering thrusters warmup procedure took five minutes. During that time, she shifted the ship’s electrical loads from station power to the ship’s electrical distribution system – at this point just the battery, but it had plenty of juice to keep them for a while – and opened the Shore Power Breakers. Then she secured the other connections – water, sanitation, atmospheric – and initiated the umbilical separation procedure.
Very shortly, the only thing connecting them with Gagarin Station would be the airlock tunnels. She would wait for the maneuvering thrusters before detaching them.
“Looks like they’re bringing in cutting torches,” Grant reported. He sat at the piloting support workstation and had brought up the security feed. The external cameras from both Airlocks 1 and 2 showed the troops bringing in a lot of heavy gear. He was right; those looked like cutters. Grant pursed his lips. “They don’t have suits. Doesn’t seem too smart of them. We could just pop the connection, and they’d be…” He trailed off and looked back at Jo with a faintly sick look on his face.
She could understand. It was one thing to shoot a guy. It was another to subject him to the vacuum of space. Jo once saw what happens to a person in space; she never wanted to again. The worst part is that the person would be aware, feeling his blood vessels explode all over his exposed skin, his lungs burst, his blood boil. It was a bad way to go.
“We’re not barbarians,” Jo said. Reaching over to her command control pad, she pulled up the communication feed to Airlock 1’s external control pad. A soft beep indicated the system’s readiness, and Jo looked toward a small camera mounted at eye level off to her right. “Call your men back, Jaqueline,” she said.
On the security feed, Agent Moore – she had been clearly visible on the security camera, if only because she was the only one not wearing a helmet – gave a surprised jerk and whipped her head around to look at the airlock control pad. Then she walked briskly over and touched the control pad.
The sound was poor, but Jo could hear the sneer in her voice as Agent Moore responded. “Not a chance.”
Jo shrugged. “It’s your choice. In one minute, I’m going to open the outer door to Airlock 2, so your man can leave. Thirty seconds later, I’m breaking the soft seal between Agrippa and the Station. I highly suggest you have your outer doors closed before that happens.”
Agent Moore laughed. “You’ll do no such thing. Your reactor won’t be ready for at least another hour,” she replied, “and we control the airlock couplings.”
That’s what she thought. “Coupling requires linkup from both ends, Jaqueliine. Once I release mine…” She left the rest unsaid.
Agent Moore did not reply, but on the security feed Jo thought she could see uncertainty appear on her face.
Grant cleared his throat. “Not to tell you your job or anything, Captain,” he said, “but she’s right, isn’t she? The Reactor’s not up yet. Can we get underway without it?”
Jo smiled, trying to appear confident, for Grant’s benefit, despite the butterflies doing flips in her stomach. What she was about to do… Well, it was not anything she would ever have considered, ever, before today. It was just not done. “The maneuvering thrusters will be online in a minute, and we have plenty of juice in the battery. We can get underway on the thrusters and get clear of the station while Malcolm finishes the startup.”
Grant just stared at her for a long several seconds. “That sounds…dangerous.”
Jo shrugged. “It is.” That was an understatement. “But so is everything on this mission.”
“Have you done this before?”
She paused. “No.” Grant’s face fell a bit, and Jo put on a confident smile. “We can’t fully light off the main engines until we’re well clear of the Earth-Luna system anyway. It’ll be fine. I’m a great pilot.”
Grant nodded slowly, licking his lips. He looked positively unnerved. Funny how a guy could face down a squad of armed men without flinching, but a little thing like getting underway without full propulsion sets him all on edge.
Jo snorted inwardly. It set her on edge. On the razor freaking edge. What she was about to do was one hundred percent against about fifteen different procedures and regulations, precisely because it was so dangerous.
Oh well. It was not like she had not violated an ass-ton of regulations already in the last few days.
Jo hit the comms control again. “Thirty Seconds, Jaqueline. What’s it going to be?”
Agent Moore did not answer. Or at least, she did not answer Jo. Her head was cocked to one side, and from time to time her lips moved; she was talking with someone; her superior most likely.
“Fifteen seconds.” Jo began to feel irritated. It would be one thing if Agent Moore forced Jo to decouple, and thus kill her, as the ultimate “Fuck You” to Jo and her mission. It would be something else if Agent Moore and her troops died because she was talking too damn much!
Finally, Agent Moore nodded and touched the control pad. “You win, Captain. As soon as our man is free, we’re pulling back.”
Jo blew out a breath she had not realized she was holding. A second later, her command workstation beeped. Jo shifted to the airlock status control and entered the command to open Airlock 2’s outer door. A moment later, the trapper trooper was back with his fellows, and Jo shut the outer door again.
The Station outer doors slid shut, and then a few seconds later Jo released the soft seal couplings.
There was a subtle change in the ship’s motion, or apparent lack thereof. They were free. Almost.
* * * * *
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