Two more chapters to go on The Pericles Conspiracy. I need to start thinking about what to share with you guys next, I suppose. More to follow on that. For now, it’s on to chapter sixty-two. And don’t forget to pick up the full book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Google Play, or iTunes.
“My God,” Grant breathed, his voice hushed, awed.
He was looking out the port side observation window on the bridge at the alien ship in formation with them, his mouth agape.
And who could blame him? Not one but two alien starships – or perhaps warships – running in clear view in a tight formation with your own ship was not exactly an everyday sight. It was one thing to know intellectually what was coming. It was another thing entirely for it to actually happen, for you to definitively see that not only was there other intelligent life in the galaxy, but it was more advanced than man.
Jo could relate. Even though it was not her first meeting with these creatures, she still felt a giddy excitement mixed with primal terror, just looking at them. Of course, even had this been her thousandth meeting with them, she expected her reaction would be the same, considering her mission this time.
“How do we play this?” Malcolm asked.
Jo looked over to where he hovered on the starboard side of the bridge, his arms crossed over his chest in an almost defensive manner and his brow furrowed in thought, or worry. Again, who could blame him, if it was the latter?
Jo shrugged. “Same way as on Pericles. We secure ring rotation and the exterior illumination lights, shine the mooring lights on the airlock we want them to come aboard through, and wait. Unless you have a better idea?”
Malcolm remained silent for a short while, considering.
Grant spoke before he did. “If it was me, I would not just come over to an unknown vessel just because they shined a spotlight on their airlock.”
“Why not? It worked before, and – “
“Before, they were stuck in a lifepod after their ship blew up, right?”
“So they had no choice. These guys,” Grant jerked a thumb at the ship to port, “do. And they’re probably wondering who or what we are, and what we want. If we go making sudden moves like running darkened ship, they might take that as showing hostile intent.”
Jo’s blood went cold. That would be well past bad. It would not do at all for them to have gone to all the trouble of bringing the eggs back here just to be shot down by the people they meant to deliver the eggs to. She tried to think of a way around Grant’s logic, but after a moment she realized he was right. How would she react if one of those alien ships just showed up in the Sol system and started acting strangely? How would United Earth Military react?
“Good point,” Jo said. “Do you have a suggestion?”
Grant nodded. “They obviously received our signal. Why don’t you play that message you supposedly have in that black flashlight-thing for them over the radio? That ought to show them we are on the level. Then we can work out how to bring them aboard, so we can give them their kids back.”
It boggled Jo’s mind how she could miss something so obvious.
Shaking her head in chagrin, she said, “I’ll be right back,” then headed below.
The trip down the lift to Ring A seemed to take forever, though it was only a few minutes. From there it was a quick jog to the cargo space where they had stowed the incubator and loader. The black rod the alien Captain gave her onboard Pericles was right where she left it before hitting the cryo-tank: safely enclosed in a small bin, a few spots down from the incubator, that was meant to hold delicate items that needed to be stored separately.
Feeling an almost reverent rush, she lifted the rod out of the bin and stared at it for a moment. So many monumental things had happened because of the information in this thing, and the precious cargo within the incubator. It seemed odd that such a small device could do so much.
Malcolm’s voice over the 1MC broke her reverie. “Get up here, Jo. I think they’re getting antsy.”
Crap. Jo hurried from the cargo space, sprinting toward the lift, and the bridge.
* * * * *
Jo gave Malcolm a hard look. “We need to talk about your definition of antsy.”
Malcolm shrugged as if to say, “Hey, don’t look at me,” but did not reply.
Rolling her eyes, Jo turned away from him and looked out at the alien ships.
Two kilometers. They had maneuvered two kilometers closer and then stopped, holding position on both quarters, as before. They were just drifting along in time with Agrippa, not doing anything. And he called that acting antsy.
Easy for you to say now.
And that was true. Had she been up on the bridge when they maneuvered, Jo may have had the same reaction Malcolm did. Maybe. But, and she often forgot this, he was an Engineer, not a pilot. He had little to no experience in the way ships interact and how they maneuver, especially when in close proximity to each other. And it was not like they were dealing with other humans here. He could be forgiven for being a little jumpy.
For his part, Grant looked slightly amused, though there was a tightness about his eyes that belied his little grin. He was more tense than he put on. Hard to blame him there, either. Jo felt it too.
“Ok,” she said, and moved past the men toward the pilot’s station, and the communications panel to its right. “Let’s see how this works.”
A few taps on the display called up the first contact protocol display again. She paused and glanced back at Malcolm. He shrugged again, and said, “It’s worth a shot.”
Jo activated the local microphone and looked down at the rod, at the three little buttons inlaid into one side. The first called up the starmap and the third the technical schematics, their payment. The second was what she needed now, but for some reason she hesitated to play the message. It almost felt like a sacred act, doing that. Like playing the message would consummate everything she had worked for these last weeks. Last decades. Better to not listen to that little voice.
Jo shook her head at her silliness and tapped the transmit button, then she pressed the second button on the rod. The image of the alien Captain’s face appeared in the air, a holographic projection, and began speaking in the aliens’ language of barks, growls, and hisses. The Captain continued for some time, explaining, Jo hoped, what had happened to their ship and that they had entrusted the eggs to Jo and her crew.
Of course, he could be saying something else entirely. He could be telling his brethren to kill them and use the starmap to invade Earth, now that humans had been foolish enough to reveal themselves.
Jo forced such thoughts away. She would not give in to paranoia. And anyway, it was far too late to do anything to avert that invasion, if such was really the aliens’ intention. Which it wasn’t.
Lord, let it be so.
* * * * *
One airlock looks much the same as any other, but this one held particular importance to Jo. It was here, or at least at the equivalent airlock on Pericles – and they were identical – where she greeted the alien Captain and his crew as they stepped aboard her ship.
And you almost got your throat ripped out.
Jo ground her teeth and tried not to remember that part of the first meeting. She drew a deep breath and looked at Malcolm. He floated weightlessly at the airlock control panel, at the ready.
Just as Grant proposed, after playing the message over the radio circuits, he and Malcolm had moved the incubator into position at this airlock. Then Jo secured ring rotation and all external illumination except for the running lights and anti-collision strobes, and turned the mooring spotlights onto the airlock outer door. Then she transferred ring rotation and external sensor control to the airlock workstation and hurried to join Malcolm and Grant here.
The aliens had been stoic in their response to the message, in that they did nothing. At least nothing that Jo could see before she left the bridge. By the time she joined the men at the airlock, that nothing had changed to…nothing.
Jo was beginning to wonder whether they really had received her transmissions, either of them, when the workstation beeped an alert. She tapped the screen and the display shifted to the aft upper camera, which was trained on the alien vessel to starboard. The display showed a small, round object drop from the ventral section of the alien ship and proceed a few hundred meters down then stop completely before advancing at a brisk pace toward Agrippa.
“Looks like they got the message,” Grant said from beside her, a certain satisfaction in his tone.
Jo nodded. “They’ll be here in a minute. Take station.”
And so they arrayed themselves, Jo in the center of the room next to the incubator, Malcolm at the airlock controls, and Grant over to the right. Despite his satisfaction that his suggestion had payed off, Grant looked nervous and downright uncomfortable.
Probably feels naked without a gun.
Jo smirked inwardly. Well, maybe not entirely inwardly. Grant had pressed hard to have at least one of them armed, preferably himself, for this meeting.
“It makes sense,” he said. “I have the most training. If we need to defend ourselves – “
Jo had cut him off with a shake of her head and a raised hand. “If we need to defend ourselves, we’re dead anyway. Even if we fight the ones in the shuttle off, the ships will just open fire. I am not going to risk this meeting going wrong. Not this time.”
Grant hated it, but he was forced to concede to her logic, and acquiesced.
Now, looking at him, so obviously ill at ease, Jo knew she was right not to let him grab a gun. He just might shoot before thinking. Not that he had ever even come close to doing that before, but that was just another added risk onto a mission that was risky enough already.
“Everyone ready?” Jo asked, trying to keep her voice calm and in command. She was actually surprised at how well she accomplished that.
Nods all around.
Jo turned her attention to the workstation display. Malcolm had called up the airlock’s external camera, and it revealed the alien shuttle on approach. It was remarkably similar to the lifepod Jo remembered from the first ship, with a number of circular protuberances on various locations and strange hieroglyphs that Jo presumed were the aliens’ language. The biggest difference she saw was while the lifepod had been roughly spherical, the shuttle was flat on one side. Jo surmised that side housed landing gear of some sort. Maybe it was capable of atmospheric re-enty? Agrippa’s shuttle could not do that; no need, or at least so the designers had said. But Jo could see all sorts of useful reasons for that capability.
The shuttle stopped even with the airlock then rotated until the flat side faced the ring’s outer edge. A moment later, one of the protuberances bulged slightly, then parted allowing a circular tunnel to cross the intervening distance between the shuttle and the airlock outer door. Just before it reached the airlock, the end of the tunnel warped and convulsed, then settled into a shape that Jo knew exactly matched the airlock’s seating surface.
A soft thunk penetrated the hull as the tunnel made contact, followed by a very soft sucking sound that lasted for less than a heartbeat.
The airlock control panel beeped, and a light flashed green.
Malcolm read the display and turned back to Jo, nodding. “Soft seal.”
“Very well. Restore ring rotation.”
“Aye.” Malcolm tapped a control on the workstation and a moment later the faintest hint of a rushing noise reached Jo’s ears. “Thrusters firing,” Malcolm reported, referring to sets of thrusters mounted tangential to the rings that were used to get the rings started initially.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the bulkhead to Jo’s left began moving toward her. It always took a few moments to overcome inertia before…
“Turning motor engaged,” Malcolm said.
The wall began to speed up, and a moment later Jo found herself pressed up against it. She slid down to the deck and stepped away from the bulkhead, moving slowly to avoid bouncing off the deck in the extremely low, but steadily building, simulated g-forces. The men were moving similarly. In another circumstance it would be almost comic.
On the camera display, the aliens’ tunnel flexed and shifted slightly, but the airlock seal held and soon enough the shuttle was revolving in time with the ring as it slowly built up to its Earth-normal turning rate.
Malcolm did not wait for an order. He tapped the airlock controls, and a red light over the inner door began flashing as the outer door slid open.
Nothing happened for several minutes. Then, just as on Pericles, a doorway opened at the far end of the tunnel. For a second or two, the only thing visible from within the shuttle was a soft white-orange light. But then a pair of figures eclipsed the light and walked onto the tunnel. The doorway shut behind them.
The aliens were just as Jo recalled: short, stooped, wearing grey jumpsuits and breathing masks over their elongated snouts. Their yellow-green, scaly skin seemed to glisten in the tunnel’s lighting as they approached. And, as before, they were armed. Or at least, Jo assumed the staff-like handles that stuck up over their shoulders were the grips to weapons of some sort. She shifted on her feet uncomfortably, recalling the feel of the alien Captain’s powerful fingers clenching her throat and how those wicked-looking claws had extended from the fingertips of the Captain’s free hand.
They hardly needed any other weapons at all, if the aliens meant to do them harm.
Malcolm shifted the display to the airlock’s inner security camera as the aliens stepped over the threshold. Their movements became slightly awkward as they crossed from their tunnel into the airlock. Jo recalled that happening on Pericles as well, probably a result of them leaving their artificial gravity field and entering Agrippa’s. They recovered quickly, though, and shortly reached the inner airlock door. There they waited for a moment. Then the one on Jo’s right – it was slightly larger than its fellow and Jo presumed it was the leader – pulled the staff-looking thing out of its shoulder-harness and rapped the end of it against the airlock inner door.
“Knock knock,” Grant quipped.
Malcolm snorted out a little laugh, then tapped a command into the airlock control panel. A moment later a soft hissing sound announced the equalization of air pressure within the airlock and tunnel. He took a moment to read the display then looked back at Jo and nodded. “Equalized. Atmospheres nominal.”
“Very well.” Jo got back into position and smoothed out her clothes. Not that coveralls really needed smoothing, but it just seemed the thing to do. Then she looked her little crew over. They had done well. Damn well. Now came the payoff.
She nodded at Malcolm. “Well,” she said. “Here we go.”
Malcolm tapped the control panel, and the inner door slid open.
* * * * *
I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Tuesday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Google Play, or iTunes.
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