We’re coming down to the end of The Pericles Conspiracy. Just three more chapters to go! Remember, if you enjoy this chapter you can pick up the full book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.
Announcing One’s Presence
The aliens’ star dominated the bridge’s forward observation window. The window was designed to automatically polarize itself to minimize glare from outside, but that ended up blacking out a significant portion of the window. Just as well that starships weren’t normally flown from visual cues.
It had been a busy day.
Jo, Malcolm, and Grant spent most of the day working in hydroponics, with just a brief interruption when the main engines cut off, right on schedule. Jo took a few minutes to maneuver the ship to point the system. Then she initiated ring rotation and went back to work with Malcolm and Grant.
They made good progress, uprooting a good third of the dead plants. They would not be able to re-plant for some time; thawing from cryo-freeze was a long, delicate process that, if not done correctly, would kill their precious seeds. It was not something Jo had any intention of rushing. Besides, the sheer immensity of Agrippa’s interior volume meant they had plenty of time before air quality became a concern, and the emergency rations would last the three of them for months. They could afford to be deliberate.
The three of them were in the crew’s mess, enjoying a meal of protein paste, when a warbling alert from the ship’s status display on the wall grabbed Jo’s attention.
Jo swallowed and exchanged looks with Malcolm and Grant, a sudden mixture of excitement and apprehension flooding her.
“Sensor data’s ready,” Malcolm said with a quirked eyebrow.
Jo nodded; she had set the alert specifically for that eventuality.
They wasted no time, running out of the mess to the lift for the bridge.
Looking at the polarized window, Jo smirked. They could have done this from Control. But there was just something about being up on the bridge. The enhanced visibility of it just seemed a more appropriate place for a journey of discovery. And besides, the bridge was located on the ship’s hub, not in one of the rings. With the main engines secured, they could enjoy zero-g for a time, something they could not partake in on the rings. Might as well have a bit of fun while they could.
“Let’s see what we have,” she said, and tapped the sensor analysis display to life.
Her earlier passive scan revealed that it was a binary star system. She should not have been surprised by that; far more systems were binary than single-star. But the system’s primary star – G-type, with about ten percent greater mass than Sol – out-shined its brown dwarf partner so completely that Jo missed the dwarf with her naked eye.
That was all well and good, but Jo wanted planetary data, and the passive sweep had been inconclusive for planets, except for one probable gas giant at the outer edge of the system’s Goldilocks Zone. If there had been more time, she could have gotten more data passively, but the analysis required to eek out planetary effects on the star was a long process.
Which was why they had been awaiting the active radar scan so eagerly.
The system took a few seconds to compile the data. The system chart, when it popped up, turned Jo’s blood to icewater.
“Oh crap,” she breathed.
Four planets. The gas giant they had already found and three worlds that were likely rocky but also were far too close to the stars to support life, or at least life like humans or the aliens she had encountered on Pericles. And that was it.
“What do you mean, oh crap?” Grant said.
“Where is it?” Malcolm asked, right on his heels.
Jo shook her head.
“Where is what?” Real fear was in Grant’s voice. He was completely out of his element, and if Jo and Malcolm had reason to be worried, how much worse would it be for him?
Jo drew in a deep breath. “The aliens’ homeworld. It should be here, but…” She trailed off, mystified.
Grant’s eyes widened and he went pale. “It’s not here?” He was almost shouting now, and Jo could not blame him. “How could it not be here?”
Jo shook her head. “I know we read the star map correctly.” She glanced at Malcolm. “Didn’t we?”
He spread his hands helplessly.
“Oh God,” Grant said. He pushed himself away from the command station and floated over to the rear of the bridge. He ran his hand through his hair and looked around frantically at the expanse of space all around them. “Oh shit.” He was about to lose it.
“Grant,” Jo said, moving over to him. “It’s ok. Relax.”
In a flash of movement, Grant grabbed her by the collar of her underway coveralls. Before she knew what was happening, her shoulders slammed painfully into the plastiglass of the port side observation window. Grant stared at her through eyes that were narrowed into angry, almost murderous, slits.
“We risked everything for this. My brother died for this. And now, these fucking alien critters AREN’T HERE???” The last came out in a roar of fury, and of pain so deep Jo felt for a moment she might drown in it of her own accord.
She opened her mouth to reply, but what was there to say? Apparently, she had been wrong, oh so wrong, in her analysis of everything. Maybe the aliens had not meant for them to bring the eggs here. Maybe… No, that made no sense. She had looked the alien leader in the eye as he – she? – made his request. As he gave them payment. The message could not have meant anything else. Could not! She must have misread the star map. There was no other explanation that made sense.
Jo began to apologize, but Malcolm interrupted.
“You two might want to take a look at this.” He sounded calm and cool, as though nothing untoward was going on in the slightest.
Grant gave a little jerk and looked away from Jo, his eyes still seething. “What?” he demanded. His expression said clearly that once he was done with Jo, Malcolm would be the next target of his ire.
Malcolm stood – floated really – with his arms at his side, his face a mask of calm. He gestured toward the sensor display.
Slowly, agonizingly slowly, Grant let up the pressure on Jo’s shoulders. He pushed himself away and bobbed over to Malcolm’s side. Jo took a moment to compose herself; her limbs were shaking and she felt a fright she had not experienced in some time. Even her brawl with Agent Moore had not called up this much fight or flight response. But then, she had gone into it reasonably sure she had a chance against Moore. With Grant… Jo did not deceive herself. She had some residual skills from her studies as a youth, but Grant was a trained expert. If he really meant to do her ill, she would not be able to stop him.
She shuddered, then drew a deep breath and forced herself to calm. Well, mostly calm. Then she maneuvered toward the two men.
“I don’t get it,” Grant said. “What am I looking at?” The fury, the terror, was gone from his voice, replaced by puzzlement and curiosity.
Malcolm smiled ever so slightly and turned his gaze on Jo. “A moon,” he said. “One of the gas giant’s moons.”
It hit Jo like a ton of bricks. Of course! It was well known that a large enough moon revolving around a gas giant could conceivably harbor life, though such places were so far exceedingly rare.
Jo halted herself next to Malcolm – on the far side of Malcolm from Grant – and peered at the display. Sure enough, the gas giant’s fourth major moon appeared to be about Earth-mass, though its radius was significantly smaller – it was likely heavy metal rich. That would explain the aliens’ compact size and great strength; the moon’s gravitational field would be substantially greater than Earth’s, at that radius.
Assuming that moon was what they were looking for.
“Track in a camera,” Jo said. She sounded a bit breathless, even to her own ears.
Malcolm nodded and brought up the observation camera control screen, then trained the camera toward the moon. It took a long minute or two for the camera to align itself and then track on the small body. Then, finally, the image from the camera came up, and Jo’s jaw dropped. Her growing tension flew away, replaced by amazed wonder.
The moon was just emerging from the gas giant’s night side. It was covered by a mass of swirling white clouds overtop a mottled blue and green surface. But Jo had seen that sort of planet many times. What caught her breath, and made her shiver a little, was a glittering ring, clearly a construction of some sort, that seemed to surround the moon. It was thick: from a more acute angle of approach than the one she was taking, Jo surmised it would probably obscure much of the moon itself.
“But what is that?” she asked. “Can you zoom in further?”
Malcolm frowned and tapped the magnification control. A moment later the image zoomed until the moon took up the entire display. The ring became clear. Jo could see several pylons of some sort that rose from the moon’s surface and joined with the ring. They could only be support structures for space elevators, which meant the entire ring had been constructed in geosynchronous orbit. Amazing!
The zoomed-in view revealed a multitude of vessels docking with and departing the ring. It was impossible for her to evaluate what each vessel’s purpose was just by looking at them, but Jo found herself calling certain smaller ones tugs, others ferries, and still others cargo carriers. Then a new kind of vessel, larger than the others, got underway, and Jo’s breath caught. She had seen that sort of vessel before. Crescent-shaped, off-white in color, with a small blister on its dorsal section that must have been its bridge, the vessel was the same make as the one they encountered on Pericles, all those years ago.
She traded looks with Malcolm and he nodded. He recognized it as well.
Jo swallowed, a shiver of both excitement and anxiety going down her spine. There was no doubt about it: this was the place.
“Son of a bitch,” Grant said.
“That about sums it up,” Jo replied, shooting him a quick grin. “I guess we know where we’re heading.”
Jo adjusted the ship’s heading to intercept that one special world. Then she left the bridge.
* * * * *
Grant surprised her.
He found her an hour later as she was walking down the main passageway in the crew’s section of Ring A, about halfway between Control and the Captain’s cabin – her cabin. He approached slowly, almost tentatively, his normal confidence giving way to uncertainty. Jo found herself quirking an eyebrow, odd as his approach was.
Grant coughed and looked at the deck. “Jo, I,” he ran his hand through his hair, then hurried on. “I wanted to apologize for how I acted on the Bridge.” He paused and looked back up at her. “No excuse.” His voice regained some of its normal assurance as he finished, but his eyes carried an unspoken plea.
The apology took her aback. She did not expect one, and really, one was not needed. They had all been through a lot, sacrificed a lot for this mission, but Grant more than she and Malcolm. It was completely understandable that he would feel anger if it turned out that his sacrifice, so large as it had been, was for nothing.
“Thank you,” Jo said. “I can’t begin to know how you are feeling…”
“I said, there’s no excuse.”
Jo paused, considering. “That’s true. But there is an explanation, and a valid one.”
Grant’s eyes narrowed as he considered her words, then he nodded quickly.
“I trust nothing like this will happen again.” Jo used her Captain-Means-Business voice. Sometimes it helped to assume an authoritative stance, and Grant seemed to be the sort who wanted and needed a hierarchy to belong to.
He nodded again, more deeply. “No, it won’t.”
Jo held his gaze for a long moment then nodded. “Very well. See that it doesn’t.”
Grant turned away then, and walked back toward Section B, where Hydroponics was located. He almost wore a smile as he left.
* * * * *
After a short nap, Jo went back on to the bridge and strapped into the pilot’s station. The straps were not necessary, but they saved having to constantly adjust herself in the zero-g environment. After a while sitting there staring at the camera display of their destination, she frowned. There was something odd, but she could not put her finger on what. The little voice in the back of her head quipped that the entire situation was odd, but she paid it no heed. Something was missing from the picture. Something that should be there.
She frowned and called up the spectrographic analysis display. The moon’s atmospheric conditions were what she expected from her last encounter with the aliens: primarily Nitrogen and Oxygen, with CO2 and Helium levels that were significantly higher than Earth’s. That was not it.
Maybe it was just the anticipation of the upcoming meeting, and of her relative inaction now, after so much running around before. Preparations for the meeting were made as well as they could be, and she found she was more hindrance than help down in Hydroponics. Ripping a bunch of dead, dying, or decayed plant matter out of the bins and preparing them for new seedlings was not something she was particularly good at. And besides, someone had to monitor their approach to the moon.
It nagged at her for almost an hour before she hit upon it. It was so obvious she was surprised she had not noticed it before: the silence. The entire time they drew nearer to the system, and to the moon, Agrippa’s communications equipment had not picked up a single signal, in any frequency range, except normal background static. That was unheard-of, in Jo’s experience. The channels should have been full of navigational beacons, traffic control, entertainment networks…the list went on. But here there was nothing.
The aliens sure did not seem to be talking with each other.
Jo frowned and looked back at the moon, now fully visible on the gas giant’s day side. The mass of vessels docking and getting underway, transiting the area, or just sitting in a stationary orbit, was no less than it had been the first time she saw it. But if that was so, why no radio chatter? Surely an operation as complex as that ring would require an extensive communications network to avoid conflicts and ensure things ran smoothly.
Jo checked the receivers again, then ran the self-diagnostic utility. Everything was in good working order; there was simply nothing to receive. It was very puzzling. Perhaps they did not use radio. But if not radio, what?
That was a rabbit hole with no end, and pointless. Even if the aliens did not use radio channels to communicate, they must surely be able to receive them. It was her broadcast from Pericles to the crippled ship that initiated their first meeting, after all.
Jo glanced at the navigation display: about 10 light-hours from the planet. They should arrive in about a day. Politeness dictated announcing their arrival beforehand, and Jo figured this was as good a time as any. She called up the communications controls again. Now, what did the first contact procedure for starliners say about the communications system? Although it had been years since she accessed the contact protocols aboard Pericles, Jo remembered the keystrokes as though it had happened yesterday. She tapped them in, hoping the algorithms had not been changed.
Her hope was rewarded as the screen shifted to a yellow-bordered command access display. The controls were exactly as Jo remembered from the encounter aboard Pericles. She pointed the directional antennas at the planet then, a couple taps later, the ship’s antenna status indications lit up across all bands.
If the aliens had not detected Agrippa already, they would in a few hours. Now there was little to do but wait.
* * * * *
The beeping of the proximity alarm roused Jo from a fitful sleep. She was still on the bridge, at the pilot’s station. She must have dozed off without realizing it. She began cursing herself for allowing that to happen before experience made her stop. Sleep was a weapon, and a necessity. It would be far worse to push herself past endurance than to grab a little shuteye when opportunity presented itself.
Jo shook her head and, wiping sleep from her eyes, tapped the control pad to wake up the sensor display. Even though she knew intellectually what was out there, she gasped and felt a surge of adrenalin when she saw it on the display. Two crescent-shaped off-white ships just like the one she saw earlier were paralleling her course, one on either side of Agrippa, at a distance of ten kilometers.
It looked as though her message had been received.
* * * * *
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