Took long enough, but we’re down to it. The last chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. Whew. Took long enough, right? If you’ve liked it, please leave a review on Goodreads or elsewhere. And, of course, pick up the full book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Google Play, or iTunes.
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From Out Of The Blue
Ilena Dmitrikov yawned and leaned back in her chair, rubbing at her eyes to ward off sleep.
It had been a long shift, and there were still four hours left to go. Her brain felt fuzzy and it was all she could do to keep her eyes open. It was her own damn fault, of course. She knew better than to stay out late the evening before she had the duty. But it was Jasmine’s last day aboard the station, and Ilena would never have forgiven herself if she missed the going away party.
And the after party.
Another yawn burst forth and she kicked her chair back from her station. She needed to stand up. Move around, get the blood flowing.
Her back, stiff from sitting for so long, protested as she straightened. Grimacing, she raised her arms up over her head, the loose white fabric of her uniform blouse falling down around her shoulder as she did so, and stretched the way her Yoga instructors taught her. She went all the way up onto her tip toes, her soft pseudo-leather shoes flexing easily as though part of her skin, and she felt a slight pop from somewhere in the middle of her back. All at once, the discomfort went away and she was left with only a blissful feeling of relaxation.
Exhaling slowly, she lowered her arms and sunk back down onto the flats of her feet. Much better.
A sudden sensation, very like someone poking at her with a blunt piece of soft plastic, brought her attention back to her station.
Unless one was logged in, the station did not look like much: just an empty space at the end of a small, oblong room with grey-blue walls and faux-wood paneled floor and ceiling. But to her eyes, the space was alive with data. The readouts from every craft in this sector of the outer solar system, the status of every communications relay, every outpost were instantly available to her if she but reached for them.
She sat back down and slid forward, and found herself surrounded by space in all its immensity. Even just her little portion was awe-inspiring. As always, it took her a moment to re-acclimate, to force down the mixture of vertigo and exhilarated joy she felt as she floated in the void, observing all that occurred. Of course, it was just a simulation, but what did it matter? It still was enough to take one’s breath away.
The moment passed, as it always did, and the tugging at her consciousness drew her attention to the far edge of her assigned sector, to the southeast-by-east edge of the Oort Cloud. Two objects that were not present before she went through her wake-up routine caught her eye immediately, as much because they were outlined in glimmering silver, a construct of the sim that was designed to draw attention to new contacts, as because they were so much different than anything else flying.
The first was a long cylinder-shaped craft with several great spheres surrounding its after half and what looked like two rings – rings! – About a third of the way from its bow. The second was larger, off-white, and crescent-shaped.
Ilena frowned. Where had they come from?
A thought reversed the sim image of the two vessels – they could only be vessels – until they suddenly vanished again.
She blinked, and the sim began playing forward again.
There was a momentary flash of light and then…something happened. It was like space itself bent and twisted. Ilena would not have noticed except a star opposite the area where it occurred suddenly became distorted and then vanished. In its place was only a reddish-yellow circle that hung there for a second or two, doing nothing. Then, the cylinder-ship shout out of the circle, followed by the crescent, a few seconds later.
The strange circle, or hole, or whatever it was closed abruptly behind them, and space returned to normal.
The sim froze as Ilena realized what she had just seen. A wormhole. Hyperspace portal. Whatever the different theorists called it, it was supposed to be nigh-on impossible to create. And yet, what else could it have been?
Her earlier fatigue long-since forgotten, Ilena gave quick thought to a report for Headquarters, in Geneva, and reset the sim to current time.
The two objects drifted together, the crescent having taken station off the cylinder’s port side. The orbital computations took less time than it took to query for them. They were on an intercept heading for Earth.
The message popped into Ilena’s vision and she checked it over quickly, then with a thought sent it flying. They were several light hours away. Conceivably there would be plenty of time for follow-up before the two craft could pose a serious threat, but given what she had just seen there was nothing to be gained from delaying her report for further analysis.
Which did not mean she was not going to investigate further.
The sim zoomed in on the pair of ships and Ilena’s breath caught in her throat. At the higher magnification, she recognized both instantly. The cylinder ship was an old Achilles-class starliner. What the hell was one of those doing flying around? The last of them were decommissioned over two hundred years ago, when the Higgs-Carpenter drive rendered their plasma-impulse engines and centripetal rings obsolete.
But the other….
For her entire NSA career, Ilena had seen images of that other ship. Grainy images, by modern standards, shot through old-style telescopic cameras centuries ago. Images of an alien craft that housed beings with the ability to invade a person’s mind, turn otherwise good and loyal men and women against their own race. A craft that she and her comrades must constantly guard against.
A craft that now appeared in her sim display.
Ilena swallowed hard against the surge of fear that swept over her. She had to stay under control. Record as much as possible. Any piece of data, no matter how seemingly insignificant, could make the difference between survival and destruction at these beings’ hands.
But she had never thought to really see such a craft.
For a full minute, she just watched the two craft drift in formation, every second bringing them closer to Earth. She could not think of what to do. The boogey-man from her earliest training was here.
And she did not know what to do.
Finally, she pulled her attention back and looked to the nearest defense outpost: the Charon battery. The two craft were almost within range. Maybe the battery could intervene.
That small action got the rest of her mental gears turning. She thought out a follow-up message for Earth, including her intentions to intercept with Charon, and sent it, chopping Charon in the transmission. Then she settled back to wait for a response. Local time appeared over the two crafts and the battery on Charon when she thought of it, along with the crafts’ time to Closest Point of Approach at Charon.
Ilena frowned. They would reach CPA in about three hours. There was no way she would receive a reply from Earth in that time.
It was up to her.
Ilena reached out with her thoughts to the Charon battery, and a heartbeat later she was part of the systems on the icy moon. The systems came online at her mind’s touch, the weapons began powering up from their long slumber. Death incarnated into plasma, fusion pulse torpedoes, and less exotic missiles and mass cannons came to train on the patch of space where the approaching crafts would pass.
And then she waited.
Gradually, imperceptibly except for her sim-heightened awareness, the crafts drew closer. She thought up the countdown timer. CPA in one hour.
Ilena licked her lips in anticipation.
Then something else tugged on her consciousness. Something new, and unexpected. Unexpected because she had not sensed this particular tug in years, since her training back on Titan.
She frowned and cast a thought toward the new stimulus. The communications window flashed open, familiar and set up just as it always was. Her frown deepened. What was it?
And then she saw it. At the bottom of the display, an old group of frequencies and modulation patterns that went out of use more than a century ago. She had always wondered why the NSA bothered to include them in its monitoring algorithms anymore, why they had trained her on them. Looking at the ancient starliner, apparently back from the scrapyard, she suddenly realized exactly why.
The people in charge were expecting an encounter like this.
That spike of fear flooded through her again. Ilena tried to push it away, to no avail. She pulled away from Charon – it was set to go and would take care of itself, only needing her input for the final engagement sequence – and shot out through the void toward the pair of ships. This time she zoomed in as far as she could, until the starliner appeared nearly life-size in front of her.
There, on the port bow. Markings. Hard to read in the dim light from the distant sun, despite the ship’s hull illumination lights. But she managed to see the vessel’s name: Agrippa.
Ilena recoiled, physically and mentally, and almost pushed herself out of the interface station again.
It could not be!
But then, the other vessel from her training was there, large as life. Why not the traitorous Agrippa as well?
What else were you expecting? What else could you expect?
The thoughts were true, but knowing what ship that was and seeing it for true were two different things. If this was Agrippa…. Was it possible her Captain drove her still, like some ghost ship out of ancient legend?
It was nonsense, of course. Ghosts did not exist, and people did not live nearly long enough for her Captain to still be aboard. But if not…who was flying the famous, cursed ship?
Without realizing what she was doing, Ilena returned to the communications controls and keyed the old channels to life.
The sim in front of her flickered, then coalesced into a quadrilateral of static for a brief half-second before resolving into the image of a more than handsome woman of east-asian descent. Her hair was long, black but heavily streaked with silver, and pulled back from her face into a ponytail. She wore black fatigues of some kind and sat in a chair facing her transmitting station, no doubt. Flanking her were two men: one tall and slender, African, with even more grey than she had, the other shorter and more stocky, of central European descent from the looks of him and only a bit of grey at his temples.
Ilena’s heart skipped a beat. She knew those faces. The traitors. On instinct, she moved her thoughts to the Charon battery, but the craft were too far out of range to do any good.
The asian woman smiled ever so slightly before speaking.
“Earth Control, this is Josephine Ishikawa aboard the starliner Agrippa, over.” Or at least that’s what Ilena thought she said. Some of Ishikawa’s words were indecipherable, a dialect that Ilena had never heard before. The sim did its best to fill in the gaps, but it still was difficult to be certain she had heard correctly.
Ilena licked her lips, trying to restore some moisture to her mouth. What to do? Before she realized what she was doing, she heard herself say, “This is Sol Approach, Haley sector.”
Ishikawa’s eyebrow quirked upward at the identifier that would be, to her, unfamiliar. “Haley sector, this is Ishikawa, aboard Agrippa. Malcolm Ngubwe is here with me.” The tall African nodded gravely. “As well as Grant Gilford.” The European flashed a quick smile that almost looked forced. “We’ve come home, and we’ve brought some new friends with us. Request safe passage through the solar system, and permission to approach and dock at Earth. We have a lot to discuss, and our friends are eager to meet with Earth’s leadership. They pledge non-aggression for the duration of our stay.”
Ilena found herself unable to put a coherent thought together for some time, let alone respond. They were really here, the demons and traitors everyone had been warned about. She should just blast them out of the sky. Her superiors would advise her to do just that.
And yet, looking at the Ishikawa woman’s eyes, serious but unguarded, and those of her companions, Ilena suddenly found it hard to assign the raving lunatic label to them even though it had been passed down for so many years.
She did not know how to answer her own thoughts. But something told her that this woman and her crew was not an immediate threat. And besides, there were many more batteries ready and able to unleash death in all its forms the closer to the inner solar system they approached, and they were only two ships. If they were indeed a threat, it would become plain soon enough, and the batteries and ready warships could take care of it.
Ilena made her decision. With a thought, she secured the battery at Charon, putting it back into sleep mode. Then she replied, “Permission granted to transit, Agrippa. For docking, contact orbital approach control on 327.483, modulation Alpha-six-two.”
Ishikawa’s eyebrows raised and she mouthed the channel identifiers to herself, then glanced at Ngubwe. He frowned but, after a moment, nodded. Apparently the ship’s communications array could handle that channel.
Ishikawa returned the nod then faced forward. “Roger, Haley sector. Thank you. Agrippa out.”
The transmission winked out. Ilena thought up an update to headquarters and sent it. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew her lack of action here might incur the wrath of her superiors, but somehow that seemed alright. She stared for a long time at the old starliner, drifting with its unknowable companion, and some of that fear she had felt before receded, replaced once more by exhilaration.
“Welcome home,” she said, to no one, and to everyone.
* * * * *
I hope you enjoyed The Pericles Conspiracy.
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