The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Sixty-Three (aka – The End)

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 AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwordsGoogle Play, or iTunes.

It’s just $0.99 this weekend, to celebrate.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Sixty-Three

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.

Agrippa.

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.

Why not?

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.

If you liked it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, SmashwordsGoogle Play, or iTunes.  Thanks!

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Sixty-Two

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 AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, Google Play, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Sixty-Two

Reunion

“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?”

Jo nodded.

“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 AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, Google Play, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Sixty-One

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 AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Sixty-One

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.

But still…

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.

*  *  *  *  *

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 AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Sixty

We’re coming down to the end of The Pericles Conspiracy.  Just four more chapters to go!  Remember, if you enjoy this chapter you can pick up the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Sixty

Wakeup Call

Electronic beeping slowly intruded on Jo’s consciousness.  Faint at first, but gradually growing louder, it penetrated her slumber first in her subconscious, evoking odd dreams of being followed by an eternally beeping robot.  Slowly, as she began to wake, the fact that she was dreaming registered.  People don’t dream in cryo-suspension.  Her eyes fluttered open.

The lighting in the cryo chamber was dim to allow her eyes to adjust.  Months, or in her case years, of slumber necessitated a gradual return to normal activity.  But there was light enough to see, so she found the control pad easily enough.  She tapped the controls and, with an audible click and a soft hiss as the tank’s atmosphere equalized with the rest of the ship, the tank’s lid slowly opened.

Pulling the electrodes from her chest and head, Jo sat up and stretched.  She felt weak, weaker than she had ever felt when coming out of cryo-suspension.  But then, to her knowledge, no one had ever been under for as long as she had.  The massage units in the chamber, though adequate to prevent muscle atrophy during shorter journeys, clearly were not able to prevent it completely during her long slumber.

She managed to stand without too much difficulty and looked around.  Malcolm and Grant were still asleep, per the planned wakeup sequence.  The Captain is always the last to sleep and first to rise, at least on Jo’s ship.

Jo hobbled over to the wall console.  She almost fell twice; only reaching the wall and leaning a hand against it stopped her from collapsing completely there at the end.  She was in bad shape.

She tapped the display to life and was unable to suppress a feeling of anxiety.  The fact that she was standing on the wall that was in line with the longitudinal axis of the ship, and not standing on the ring’s outer wall or floating, meant that the engines were firing, decelerating the ship.  But were they decelerating at the right star system?

The navigation status display flashed onto the screen, and Jo breathed a sigh of relief.  Ship’s position plotted exactly on the projected course.  They were about three days from the outskirts of the aliens’ star system, with twelve hours left on the deceleration burn.

Plenty of time.  She forced herself erect and slowly, carefully, maneuvered over to Malcolm and Grant’s tanks and checked their status: five minutes remained on their wakeup cycle.  As their tanks slowly thawed and the two men began the usual pre-waking movements, Jo ran through everything that needed to be done to prepare for the meeting in her mind.  There was a lot to do, but the tasks were mostly everyday, easily accomplished.  That did not make any of it less important, though.

Soft hisses from each tank announced their opening.  Jo put on a smile of greeting as the men groggily rubbed at their eyes and sat up, working their jaws slowly to work the dryness from their mouths.  Malcolm was the quicker to throw his feet out of his tank and stand up, but then he had done this countless times.

“Morning, Jo,” he said, flashing a grin at her.  Then he pushed himself up onto his feet and his knees promptly buckled beneath him.

Jo rushed over and put an arm around his shoulder to help him to his feet.  “Easy.  Take it slow,” she said, as though she was not in about the same shape he was.

Slowly, she got Malcolm up on his feet.  He leaned back against the side of his tank and smirked in embarrassment.  Jo turned to check on Grant.

And found him siting upright, his feet dangling over the edge of his tank.  He was leaning forward slightly, his palms resting on the side of the bed next to his knees.  He looked a little green.

“It’s normal to feel a little bit queasy,” Jo said, trying to sound soothing.  “Especially your first time.”

He nodded and flashed a slight grin at her.  “I’ll be ok,” he said.

Then he doubled over and threw up onto the floor.

*  *  *  *  *

The first thing Jo did, after she, Grant, and Malcolm dressed was go up to the bridge and initiate a full forward sensor scan.

Then she went below to eat breakfast.

You do not know hunger if you have never come out of cryo-suspension.  And this was the longest cryo-sleep in history; her stomach felt like a black hole had taken up residence.  She hurried to the mess, still a bit wobbly on her feet, and found Malcolm and Grant hard at work snarfing down as much food as they could.  None of it fresh, of course, but even powdered and freeze dried tastes like a king’s feast after a long cryo-sleep.

“Do you think the plants survived?” Jo asked in between bites of something that tasted of strawberries but was certainly not.

Malcolm shrugged.  “With no one to tend them for so long?”  He paused, considering.  “They probably overgrew their containers a long time ago.  Could be at least some of them are ok still.  We’ll see.”  He took a bite of his food, chewed with relish and swallowed with a grin.  “Grant and I will check on them, and on the other supplies, after this.  I presume you’ll be on the bridge.”

Jo nodded.  Wild horses could not keep her away from the bridge for long, not now.

Malcolm chuckled.

Jo took another bite and looked at Grant.  He sat silently, eating slowly and with little sign of relish.  Physically, he looked great.  His time in cryo-suspension had healed his wounds from the assault on Gagarin; Jo could hardly see the scar on his temple and forehead and he had only a slight limp to show from his leg wound.  Aside from a smattering of grey above his ears that had not been there before – ah the joy of aging while sleeping away the flight – he looked the same man Jo had met, all those trillions of kilometers and decades before.  But he was subdued, more than the serious, businesslike manner he had about him before.  If she did not know better, Jo would say he was depressed.

“You ok?” Jo asked.

Grant looked up from his plate and shrugged slightly.  “Just thinking.”  He paused, frowning slightly as though unsure whether, or how, to proceed.  Then he shrugged again.  “I wonder what Thomas would think about all this, if he was here.”

The question took Jo by surprise, though it really should not have.  They may have slept away years, but the passage of those years did not heal the mind the way that their passage in a waking state would.  Jo knew that for a fact; just thinking back to the events that led up to Thomas’ death brought to mind Bunker Hill, and her crew members who had died at Jo’s hand.  It was like a knife in the gut still, because she had not really had the time to heal.  Neither had Grant.

Jo forced the surge of guilt and regret down ruthlessly and glanced at Malcolm.  He sat quietly, chewing on his food with a pensive expression.  He did not look like he had anything to add.

“I don’t know, Grant.  I,” Jo paused to find the right words.  “I think he would be proud.”

“Yeah, probably.”  Grant swallowed and looked at the food on his plate for a moment, then sighed and stood, pushing the plate away.  He looked at Malcolm and quirked an eyebrow at him.  “You ready to do this?”

Malcolm looked surprised.  He glanced at Jo quickly, and she gave a little nod.  Better to keep Grant busy, if he really was depressed.

Malcolm swallowed down a gulp of water and stood.  “Let’s go.”

The two men took their plates to the sanitizer, then strode out of the mess.  As they passed, Malcolm gave Jo a little smile and a wave.

Jo watched them go, concern for Grant weighing on her mind almost as much as her guilt.  Almost.

*  *  *  *  *

Jo made her way back to the bridge and settled into the command seat.  She frowned at the active sensors display, suppressing a surge of annoyance at the lack of results.  But then, they were a number of light-hours away still; the returns from her radar sweep would not make it back to the ship for some time.

That did not preclude a passive search, though.  Jo keyed in a standard spectral analysis sweep from the two aft observation cameras – she would have preferred to use the forward cameras, which would not have the ship’s wake to contend with, but the stern faced the star system, so the forward cameras would not be of much use – and settled back to wait on the results.

A few minutes later, the intercom beeped and Malcolm’s voice came through.  “Hydroponics is a total loss,” he said.

Well.  That put a damper on things.  “There’s nothing retrievable at all?”

“Not enough to make it worthwhile.  We’ll have to pull the emergency stock from cryo and replant everything.”

Jo frowned.  That would be a long, involved bit of work, and neither she nor Malcolm was a botanist.  Grant certainly would not know his way around a hydroponics plant; very few of the planetbound had a clue about that sort of thing.  But then, Grant was not really planetbound anymore, was he?  Curious.

“Alright.  Go ahead and get started.  We’ve got,” she glanced at the ship’s status display, “nine hours left on the burn.  See what you can get done in that time.”

“Aye aye,” Malcolm replied.  The intercom went dead.

Jo spared a minute to consider their situation.  The hydroponics gardens supplied most of the food for the crew.  Most of the plants were high protein content, and used to make sim-meat – it was a lot more tasty than the planetbound Jo described it to assumed – and the other staples that saw them through.  But the ships carried freeze-dried stores and protein paste tubes for emergencies.  The stock should last a good long time.  More importantly, the gardens were the ship’s primary atmospheric processing system, scrubbing the CO2 from the crew’s exhalations and replenishing the oxygen supply.  There were backup chemical systems, and water stores that could be broken down to bleed oxygen back into the air, but their capacities were limited.  If Malcolm was not able to restore at least some of the garden, they could have a real problem for the long-term.  It helped that her crew was so very small, but it still warranted attention.

Later.

For now, the immediate concern was their mission.  Long-term survival was important, but there was a greater than zero chance they would not survive the meeting with the aliens.  Making sure that meeting went well, or even went at all, ranked a bit higher on the priority list.

* * * * *

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 AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Fifty-Nine

It’s Tuesday!  It’s chapter time!  Remember, if you enjoy this chapter you can pick up the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Fifty-Nine

Asleep Beneath The Stars

Jo tapped the cryo-suspension tank’s control panel and its semi-transparent lid slid up into place with a soft click.  Grant was already asleep, looking peacefully at rest.  It was more peaceful than he had appeared in days.  Jo glanced to the cryo tank next to Grant’s, where Malcolm lay asleep, his tank’s lid already frosted over.

She smiled slightly and whispered, “See you in seventy years or so.”  Then she turned away.

She stood alone in the cryo chamber for a moment, looking at the long line of tanks that normally would house Agrippa’s entire crew for the periods of her journey when they were not asleep.  Dozens of tanks, crammed closely together to save on space.  And only two in use.  Three, momentarily.

The pain of her guilt for what she had done to Bunker Hill’s crew still hung on Jo like a heavy cloak, but she had herself back under control.  It took a while, and she had remained on the bridge alone until the worst of it passed.  In that time, she adjusted the engine settings to achieve the normal 1 Earth-Normal g acceleration and verified their course to the aliens’ home system was laid in correctly, then she went below to rejoin Malcolm and Grant.

They ate a small victory feast.  Although victory was probably not the right word for it, considering how much they had paid to get where they were, and the fact that even now there was a good chance their mission would still end in failure.  But there was cause for celebration nonetheless, so they managed.

The following hours contained a myriad of tasks to prepare the ship for their long slumber, from programing the vegetation feeding cycles in hydroponics to securing power and supplies to the cryo-suspension tanks they were not going to use – and there were a lot of them, over five thousand total.  The preparations were tiring, but no one complained.  They would soon get more than enough sleep to compensate for it.

Jo stepped over to the display screen on the wall near the cryo chamber’s door and, one last time, called up the navigation system.  The course looked good.  Programmed wakeup contingencies were all proper, as was the final arrival wakeup point.  Consumable stores were more than sufficient for the trip, and there was no sign of any further pursuit on the sensors.  They were, it seemed, in the clear.  There was nothing else for her to do but go to sleep.

And yet she was strangely reluctant.  Something felt undone, somehow.  But rack her mind though she did, Jo could not think of what.

It’s just nerves.  Leftover stress from the last few weeks.

And that was very likely true.  She had never been all that good at winding down, and she had been strung out on stress for as long as she could remember lately, it seemed.  It was time to put all that aside.  Time for rest before the real challenge – meeting the aliens.  Explaining, somehow, what had happened.

Yeah, that’s the perfect way to stop being stressed out, thinking about that.

Jo shook her head and snorted at herself.  Enough delaying.

She slid off her fatigues and undershirt, all the way to her bra and panties.  Then she slipped into her cryo tank and pulled the thermal blanket up over her body.  This was the part she hated, but she always insisted on being the last one in – it seemed fitting, as Captain.  So she had long ago taught herself how to insert her own IV and hook up her own EKG and EEG probes.  Finally, she strapped the breathing mask over her face and tapped the control pad – there was one built into the interior of every tank as well as an exterior one, just for this reason.  Gas began flowing into her breathing mask and she felt a cool fluid enter her veins from the IV.

Immediately she began to feel drowsy.  As always – and she had never been able to stop herself from doing this – she fought the feeling, trying to remain conscious and alert.  But the drugs won out, as they always did.  The last thing she saw before drifting off was the tank’s lid sliding shut.

* * * * *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Saturday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Fifty-Eight

It’s Tuesday!  It’s chapter time!  We’re getting down toward the end now, and the action’s heating up.  🙂  Remember, if you enjoy this chapter you can pick up the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Fifty-Eight

Evasion

Jo keyed the 1MC.  “The ship has cleared the Station.  All hands report status.”

Almost immediately, Grant’s voice came over the circuit.  “I about knocked myself silly on that last maneuver, but I’m ok.”

“Any sign of mischief?”

“No, looks like we’re clear.”

“Ok.  Sit tight.  Malcolm will be along in a couple minutes.”

“No worries.”

Jo turned Agrippa away from Gagarin Station and applied forward thrust, putting the ship on a vector away from the inner solar system in the general direction of Leo, where the aliens’ homeworld lay.  Then she called up the navigation system and began entering their course data.

A moment later, Malcolm called up.  “Reactor’s hot, Jo.  You should have main propulsion in three minutes.”

Tension left her in a rush.  That was the final obstacle.  With the mains online, the only thing standing between her and success was two hundred sixty-three light years, and a long long nap.  Unless they really sent a warship.  Jo keyed the aft radar system and trained the aft upper camera toward Gagarin’s upper moorings, where the Navy kept their ships.  No signs of movement up there.  Maybe it was just a bluff.

Yeah right.  They were not that lucky.

“Ok,” Jo said into the comms circuit.  “Go back to Control and help Grant up to the acceleration quarters.  Report as soon as you’re there and I’ll secure ring rotation.  We may have to burn the mains early.”

The second’s pause before Malcolm replied spoke volumes.  “This close to the planet?”

He was right to question.  The main engines put out one hell of a lot of thrust, and left quite a wake of highly energetic particles behind them.  Burning too close to a planetary body could wreak havoc with the planet’s ionosphere.  On a highly populated planet like Earth, that could translate to all sorts of problems: power losses on orbiting ships and platforms, and maybe on the ground as well, outright destruction of smaller electronics systems, fires, that sort of thing.  On the plus side, it would also make for one hell of an aurora for those on the ground.

“I’d rather not, but Chandini just called and threatened to send a warship if we don’t heave to, so…”  She left the rest unsaid.

“Roger.  We’ll be up in a few minutes.”

*  *  *  *  *

“Starliner Agrippa, this is the United Earth Ship Bunker Hill.  You are ordered to heave to and prepare to be boarded, over.”

The hail came in loud and clear over the primary intrasystem hailing frequency.  Jo had expected to hear it, and dreaded it.  But part of her had held out hope that maybe, just maybe it would not happen.

But when, an hour earlier, she gained radar contact on a vessel closing from astern, she knew that hope was false.  The ship’s velocity exceeded hers, and would continue to for quite some time unless she burned the mains, as small as the acceleration from the maneuvering thrusters was.

She trained the aft lower camera toward the approaching vessel, and cringed.  It was a warship, all right.  To the uninitiated, it would be difficult to tell the difference between it and Agrippa, but to Jo’s experienced eye it was obvious.  The boxy bow, containing the ship’s missile battery.  The plasma turrets on swivel mounts in three clusters along the length of the hub.  The boxy section just aft of the ship’s rings – the ship’s hangar bay, where it kept its compliment of fighter craft.  All pointed to that ship being a one hell of a destructive platform.

On the bright side, interstellar travel being as long and arduous as it was, the typical warship was not equipped for journeys outside the solar system; its fuel and consumables capacity was limited, though it could accelerate a hell of a lot faster than Jo could onboard Agrippa, that was for sure.  Its limited range was a small comfort.  If it caught her before she could get to an appreciable velocity – and it would – she was screwed.

“Well, crap,” Jo muttered.

She keyed the comms circuit down to the crew’s acceleration quarters, where Malcolm and Grant were waiting in the mess.  “We’ve got company,” she said.

“Warship?”  It was Grant.  He sounded more energetic than before, more focused.  Malcolm had been able to use the hours since their departure from Gagarin to better treat his wounds and get some food – and coffee – into all of them.  Jo felt a lot better, as well.  Or at least she had.

“Yep.  The Bunker Hill.”

“Fuck.”  Silence followed for a few seconds.  “We’ll be up in a minute.”

True to his word, Grant hobbled up the ladder from the bridge access corridor a few minutes later.  Malcolm helped him along, but he did surprisingly well, considering his injuries.  Well, maybe not that surprising.  They were only accelerating at 0.3 g’s.

“So, you gonna do some of that pilot shit, or what?”  Grant gave her a snarky little grin that did not carry to his eyes.  He might look better, and be acting better, but he was still hurt.  Badly.  And not just physically.

“Hope so,” Jo replied, trying a confident smile in return.  “The timing is going to be tricky, though.”  She looked at Malcolm.  “Are we all stowed belowdecks?”

He nodded.  “The incubator’s mounted in one of the cargo bins, just like we did before, and the loader’s strapped down.  I rigged up a power feed to the incubator, so it should be fine for as long as it needs to be.”  Which would be quite a long time, hopefully.

Jo nodded, satisfied.  That had been Malcolm’s other project since their getaway from the Station.  It would not do to have the incubator flung around willy nilly as they accelerated and decelerated during their transit to the aliens’ star system.  The cargo bins were mounted on pivots that shifted with the acceleration forces on the ship, so the cargo was always facing “downward”.  It made for a better passage that way, and a much better offload and unpacking.

“Ok then.  Let’s surrender.”

Their plan was risky.  Damn risky.  But it was the only one any of them could come up with.  Jo secured the maneuvering thrusters and then turned to the comms panel and responded, “Bunker Hill, this is Agrippa.  Roger.  I have secured my thrusters, over.”

The warship’s only reply was a terse acknowledgment.

*  *  *  *  *

Bunker Hill took station five kilometers off Agrippa’s port quarter.

She looked tiny, especially at that distance.  And compared with Agrippa, she was.  Warships did not need the cargo and consumables capacity of starliners, so while Agrippa measured two and a half kilometers long, Bunker Hill probably measured a half kilometer, total.  Consequently, her rings were smaller and rotated quite a bit faster than Agrippa’s.  But just because she was smaller did not mean she was not tough.

Jo frowned.  Five kilometers was a bit further out than she hoped they would get, but it should not matter.  Anything inside ten would work.  Theoretically.

“Agrippa, this is Bunker Hill, over.”

Jo keyed the comms circuit.  “Agrippa.”

“Standby to receive our boarding party, Agrippa.  We intend to come along your port side to your hangar bay and mate up there, over.”

Like hell.  But she was not going to tell them that.  “Roger, Bunker Hill.  We look forward to seeing you.”

“I’m surprised they don’t have any fighters out,” Malcolm mused, from where he floated to her left.

Jo found herself in agreement, but Grant smirked and shook his head.  “No need for fighters to take a pig like us.  Standard procedure is to hold them in reserve for dealing with smaller, more maneuverable targets.  Besides, no ship captain worth his salt is going to turn over capturing a prize like us to a couple of flyboys.  He would never live it down.”

Jo looked at him askance; Malcolm did the same.

“What?  I had friends in the Navy, once upon a time.”

Jo rolled her eyes.  Whatever the reason, she was glad for the lack of fighter cover.  Had Bunker Hill put fighters out, their plan stood exactly zero chance of working.  As it was, Jo figured they had a fifty-fifty shot.

She looked back at the camera display, which was zoomed in tight on Bunker Hill.  The ship had one of her plasma turrets trained in their direction, but aside from that, it could have been just sitting there, for all Jo could tell.

“How long to launch the shuttle, do you think?”

Malcolm shrugged.  “Five minutes, probably.”

“Ok.  Go strap yourselves in.  We’ll be doing some wild maneuvers here.”

Malcolm and Grant grinned nervous but excited smiles.  The three of them shook hands, and then the two men left the bridge.

Jo pulled the straps tight around her shoulders and adjusted herself in the pilot’s seat.  It seemed to take forever, but just a minute later, Malcolm called up on the intercom.

“All set.”

“Roger.  Standby for g’s.”

She looked back at the camera display.  A moment later, a small craft launched from the belly of Bunker Hill – their shuttle, no doubt.  It pivoted and fired thrusters, making a beeline for Agrippa.  Jo watched the turret closely, hoping and praying that it would…

There.  The turret was training away as the shuttle came into its line of fire.  Blue on blue makes for a bad day, and all that.

It was time.

Jo grabbed the control stick and initiated maximum thruster burn, pivoting Agrippa’s stern until it pointed directly at Bunker Hill.  Then she hit the main engine controls.  Full Thrust.

A deep rumbling sound filled the ship and sudden acceleration, well past Earth-normal, pressed Jo back into her seat.

She looked at the camera, still trained on Bunker Hill, and smiled thinly as the ship was obscured by Agrippa’s brilliant white wake.

It was not a plasma gun, but it was almost as good.  Agrippa’s main engines worked by accelerating a large number of charged particles to high relativistic velocities and then channeling them through narrow nozzles in the main engine nacelles.  Even if Bunker Hill had a warning, she would not have been able to avoid the wake, as fast as it was traveling, not at that range.  Best case, and Jo fervently hoped they got the best case, the stream of particles would knock them for a loop, taking out their primary systems and causing havoc with their electronics.  Worst case…  Well, Jo did not really want to think about it, but worst case, the ship might get torn apart.  But that was only likely if she was close.  Real close.

Jo grabbed the stick and pulled back, and the maneuvering thrusters pitched Agrippa up ninety degrees, back toward their desired heading and accelerating all the way.  As they gained distance and bearing from the encounter site, Jo slewed the aft upper camera back toward Bunker Hill.

She was just emerging from the glowing wake, turning end over end, out of control.  The missile battery forward was twisted, like some great fist had punch it from the side, knocking it askew.  One of the rings was venting – Jo could see a stream of gasses leaking out.  Quite a large stream, actually.  Jo cringed.  She hoped the ship’s interior bulkheads had held, otherwise they were in trouble. Regardless, that crew had enough to deal with that they were not going to bother Jo and crew anytime soon.

There was no sign of the shuttle.

Guilt crashed on to Jo’s shoulders.  She had very likely just killed a bunch of people.  Dozens, maybe more.  The fact that it was necessary, that she had no choice in the matter, did not help.  It was one thing to know that people under her command, Grant and Thomas, had killed some people during their mission – they had taken pains to avoid it if they could, using flash-bangs and the like, but she had no doubt some of the troops on Gagarin had been killed.  It was something else when she did it herself.  She was unprepared for it.  Completely unprepared.

She was crying.  She hated it, but she was.  There was no time for this.  But she kept right on crying, nonetheless, and did not stop for a long time.

* * * * *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Saturday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Fifty-Six

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.

Anyway, here goes.  Remember, if you enjoy this chapter you can pick up the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Fifty-Six

Agrippa

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.

Crap.

“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.

* * * * *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Saturday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Fifty-Five

Time for the next chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy!  Remember, if you enjoy this chapter you can pick up the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Fifty-Five

Pursuit

Rifle fire greeted Jo as she met up with Malcolm and Grant.  She flattened herself again the tunnel wall and peeked out, and saw several men in black advancing quickly, those in front on one knee and laying down covering fire for those behind.  She did not take time to count, but there must have been a half-dozen or more.

The fact that Grant and Thomas had taken down half the force was pretty impressive, all things considered.  But not impressive enough.

“We need to get this door shut,” Jo said.

The men nodded agreement.  Jo took a minute to look them over.  Malcolm was sound, and had his rifle.  Grant was without his weapon, and badly wounded.  But his eyes burned with fury and determination.  Jo’s own rifle lay where she had left it, up on the driver’s seat; far to exposed to get it right this moment.

Jo pressed her pistol into Grant’s hand then looked him and Malcolm in the eye.  “Cover me.  I’ll get the loader in here and then we’ll seal the door.”

Malcolm looked as though he was going to protest, but then he nodded.  Sometimes he was a very smart man.  He helped Grant lean up against one edge of the door, then he took station on the other.  Jo drew a deep breath and nodded.

The two men began to fire.  Instantly, the advancing troops stopped.  Those in the clear ducked behind the closest cover they could find.  The others returned fire, but it was more sporadic than a moment before; they had to be careful not to hit their fellows as they darted out of the line of fire.

It was by no means a clear dash to the loader driver’s seat, but it was only a couple of meters, and there would not be a better time to go.  So Jo went.

She almost got shot immediately; a plasma ball just missed hitting her in the face, but the act of flinging herself onto the driver’s boarding ladder got her head out of the way in time.  Still, the heat of the passing shot singed her.  Again.

Twice in less than a minute.

That was too much good luck for any one person.  Jo scrunched down as tightly as she could, shoved the motor into gear, and floored it.

Fortunately, Malcolm had managed to get the loader aligned with the door before he got back down to help Grant, so flooring it was all the thing required to surge through the door into the tunnel beyond.

“Malcolm!” Jo shouted as she rocketed past him.

Nothing else needed saying.  She stopped the loader and turned around on the seat in time to see the door shut as Malcolm activated the control pad on the inside of the tunnel.

Or rather, in time to see the door almost shut.  The two halves of the door slid out from their housings on either side of the doorway, but very quickly began to shudder and jerk until they finally stopped with a half-meter of open space between them.

“Son of a bitch,” Jo breathed.  The door’s operating mechanism must have been damaged by all the plasma bolts.  Lucky they moved at all, if that were the case.  More loudly, she said, “Malcolm, help Grant up here.  That’s not going to slow them down much.”

Malcolm was way ahead of her.  As soon as the doors began to move, he darted across the opening – and almost got shot for his effort – to Grant’s side.  Again looping his arm around Grant’s shoulder, Malcolm half-pulled half-carried him toward Jo and the loader.  He paused only for a brief moment to look back as Jo spoke.  Then he breathed a curse and redoubled his effort.

In a moment they had Grant perched on the driver’s seat next to Jo.  She had to squeeze over, and even then he only got a very narrow bit of the seat, but it was the best they could do on short notice, and he had plenty of handholds.

“Hold on,” Jo said, earning a nod from Grant and a look that screamed, “I’m not stupid.”  She quirked an eyebrow at him, then hit the accelerator again.

*  *  *  *  *

Three hundred meters does not seem like much, but when you are running from a bunch of goons with guns who are intent on shooting or arresting you, it seems like forever.  Or at least it did to Jo.  At its best, the loader was not slow; a tad faster than the average running man.  But right then it felt like she was riding a tortoise, with a half-dozen hares coming up fast from behind.

She looked back over her shoulder several times during the drive down the airlock tunnel.  At first, the only things moving were Malcolm as he labored to keep up – he gave up on that early on and just hopped up onto the boarding ladder below Grant – and Agent Moore.  She managed to push herself up onto her feet and got over to the inner door’s control pad, but all her blind tapping at it was to no avail.  The door operating mechanism must have been completely shot, because it did not move at all.

That was good.

Not good enough, though.  Shortly, troops began squeezing through the gap, and soon a quartet of them joined Agent Moore in the tunnel.  They paused a moment to free her hands from the cuffs, and to grab her pistol from where it had fallen – and why had Jo not thought to grab it?  Then they were off at a sprint.

“Well that didn’t take long,” Malcolm noted, his voice tight with strain.  “Where are the others?  I could have sworn there were two or three more still up.”

Grant adjusted himself on his precarious perch, and hissed in pain as he jarred his injured leg.  “Probably going to the other personnel airlock,” he said, gritting his teeth.

“Crap.”

Jo ran the numbers in her head.  Airlock 2 lay a quarter of the way around the ring; a walk of a little less than a kilometer.  But the troops would not have to walk.  The loading rings had transport trams, similar to the intra-ring transport system aboard the starliner itself.  The tram would get them to the airlock entrance in a minute, maybe a little more.  Then it was a short sprint to the inner door, then three hundred meters to the junction with Agrippa.

“It’s going to be close,” Jo said, “but once we’re onboard I’ll be able to seal the ship’s hatches.  We should be secure, then.”

“Unless they override it.”  Grant was always so cheerful.

Jo shook her head.  “Can’t do it.  Safety interlocks prevent access without permission from within the ship itself.”

“Ok.  But they could – “

A plasma ball shot past, interrupting Grant’s words and making him duck down reflexively.

“Son of a bitch,” Malcolm cursed.  “Are they stupid?  You don’t shoot rifles inside an airlock tube.  It could cause a breach!”

Jo glanced back again, and saw one of the pursuing troops had lagged behind the others.  He bent over to pick something up – his rifle.  Looked like his fellows had upgraded him.

Jo’s group was almost to the outer door, and the junction with Agrippa; just thirty meters to go.

“I’m going to need to hop off to get the door open,” Jo said to Grant.  “Can you drive this thing with your leg?”

He took a second or so to answer, considering.  Then he nodded.

“Good.”  Jo shot him a half-smile.  “Looks like you’re coming with us after all.”

He just grunted, scowled.

Fifteen meters.  Ten.   Five.

Jo stopped the loader and hopped off.  She did not bother with the ladder; it would be too much trouble to dislodge the men, and it was not that far a drop, nothing she had not done before.  So naturally, she rolled her ankle painfully as she landed.  “Damnit,” she muttered.  She may have broken something – or had she just sprained it?  No time to worry about that now.  She forced herself to push past the pain and limped over to the control pad.

Moment of truth.  Again.  She swiped her holocard and entered the code again.

The screen flashed red, then a fake-sounding female voice said, “Access Denied.”

Oh hell.

“What’s the problem?” Malcolm asked.

Jo tried again.  Maybe she had mis-typed.

“Access Denied.”

“Son of a bitch,” Jo said for what felt the hundredth time that day.  “Their techs must have seen the code I used back there and changed it, or removed its access.”

“Isn’t there a backup?”  Grant asked.

Jo scowled.  “Just Agrippa’s internal access codes.  I’m not sure if they’ll work out here or not.”

The two men looked at her flatly.  Right.  Only one way to find out.

Jo replaced her personal holocard and pulled the other one, the one that IT had made specifically for Agrippa’s network, from her pocket.  She took a deep breath, then swiped it and entered the code.

There was a long pause.  Too long.  It was not going to work.

Then there was an electronic beep and the screen flashed green.  The same female voice said, “Welcome Aboard.  Enjoy your flight.”

The door began to open.  They were in.

* * * * *

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 AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Fifty-Three

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.

Remember, if you enjoy this chapter, please do pick up a the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Fifty-Three

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.

Hopefully.

“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.

If only.

*  *  *  *  *

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.

“Hurry, Jo!”

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.

* * * * *

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 AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Fifty-Two

Time for the next chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy.  We’re coming near to the end here, and the action is picking up!

If you enjoy this chapter, please do pick up a the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Fifty-Two

Round And Round

The Starliner levels were arranged differently from the ring levels.  Each level was actually divided into two, about three and half kilometers apart.  Level A attached to the bow of the starliner; B to the stern.  Within each sub-level there were no rotating doorways, no rotation at all.  Zero-g ruled until one actually reached the loading rings, which turned along with the starliner’s two living and cargo rings to generate artificial gravity in the loading sections of the station and aboard the starliner itself.  Consequently, navigating from the sled station to the loading ring access tubes was a bit more complicated than from the station to the station rings.  Once Jo’s party left the sled station, they had to maneuver around the outside of the transport tube complex until they reached their desired berth – Berth Three – and then they could push themselves “upward”, using guide cables to maintain their course, until they reached the access doors on the hub’s outer wall.

“This is terribly inefficient,” Grant muttered as they touched down, for lack of a better word, adjacent to the doors.  “Floating cargo around like this?”

Jo smirked and gestured toward the hub’s inner wall adjacent to the doors.  Embedded into the wall was a large conveyer-belt looking device, with davits where standard-sized shipping containers could be strapped.  “No one ships large cargo loose, like we have it.  It all goes into containers, and has a different access to the ship.”  She gestured upward along the axis of the hub, where a few tens of meters away were larger doors that led into separate tubes, specifically designed to ship cargo into the loading rings, and then downward toward a separate set of connections that led from the hub wall toward a different sled station than they had used.  From its size, it was built only for cargo containers.  “The sled we took was for passengers, and for their personal baggage.”

Grant blinked.  Then his eyes widened as his eyes tracked toward where she was pointing.  At first, she thought he was impressed by the size and elegance of the design.  Then he scowled, surprising her.  “You mean to tell me we could have just hidden ourselves away inside a cargo container and saved all this sneaking and stalking and maybe getting shot at?”

Jo recoiled slightly, his irritation getting the better of her for a second.  Oh, it was understandable, considering what he and his brother faced.  But it was so wrong.

“There is no way to open those containers from inside, Grant,” Jo said as gently as she was able.  He opened his mouth to protest, but she held up a hand, silencing him.  “And they are all lined up a month or more before loading, and are all inspected.  Even if we could have put ourselves into one and shipped it, we would either have suffocated within it or been killed by the scanning devices.”  Those were particularly high-energy, and were the reason why one did not ship pets or other livestock aboard starliners, at least not as cargo.  Each ship carried a small number of cryo-suspension units that could accommodate animals, but the waiting list to get into one of those was long.

And for good reason.  The last thing one would want to do was to bring an alien creature onto a different world.  Some number of pets or other domesticated animals were likely to escape, and they would have no natural predators on the new world.  Even just a few members introduced from an alien species could have cataclysmic consequences for the world’s ecosystem.

Grant nodded slowly, the bitterness that had flooded into his gaze leaving as quickly as it came.  He gestured toward Thomas, who pressed the control pad for the loading ring access doors.  A moment later, with a slight gust of air as the pressure between the loading rings and the hub equalized, the doors opened.

Jo’s group proceeded onward.

*  *  *  *  *

The access tube stretched a kilometer or more away from the hub proper, running straight and true, and wide enough for a dozen or more people to float in file down its entire length.  But now, as before, there was no one else visible anywhere.  This was not so unusual; procedure dictated that the ship be cleared of personnel and only minimal personnel allowed within the loading rings during fueling and settling.  And most of the loading ring personnel would be stationed within the cargo holds: security guards, inventory clerks, and the like.  There would be no need for commuter assistance personnel until time to load the passengers next week.  So Jo fully expected to encounter only electronically secured access doors the whole way into the ship.

All the same, for whatever reason, the lack of people made Jo nervous.  Looking aside at her compatriots, she was not the only one.  Time for a pep talk.  She turned around to face the others, her momentum continuing to push her backwards toward the end of the tube.  But Thomas spoke before she was able.

“They’re waiting for us up ahead.”  It was a statement of fact, not a question.  There was no doubt in his eyes.

Next to him, Grant had a similar look.  Dread, but below that steely determination.

Jo nodded.  “Only a fool would not have people stationed at the access hatches, and these people are not fools.  Agrippa is the only starliner leaving in the next two months.  Where else would we go?”

No one responded for a minute or so.  Finally, Grant said, “Why not have them stationed on the ship itself?”

That was one thing that had worryied Jo to no end.  If that were the case, there was a good chance they would never know it until far too late.  Worse, they would never know whether they had cleared the ship or not.  Even if they made it out of the solar system, they would potentially be placing themselves into cryo-suspension with hostiles onboard, ready to do them in while they were helpless.

Of course, that would doom the hiding troops to live out the rest of their days on a starliner that was hurtling off toward a far distant star.  Jo found it hard to believe NSA people had the expertise to operate a starliner at all, let alone navigate it back to Sol.  No, that would likely be a suicide assignment.  Hard to motivate a person to take a job like that.  Especially when one of those sexy warships moored a couple dozen kilometers above Agrippa could just as easily get underway and blow Agrippa out of the sky.

That was not likely, though.  It would mean spreading word far and wide about what was going on here.  Or maybe not.  It would be easy to just make up a cover story that seemed plausible and give the order.  To call what ran down Jo’s spine right then a chill was to call a glacier a little pile of snow.  That was an angle she had not ever really considered before.  She had presumed the NSA would keep this in-house, to avoid bad press and maybe to avoid losing face with other Agencies.  But what if they deemed stopping her so important that they threw all that to the wind?

There was no way to know.  And, frankly, she could not worry about everything; that would leave her incapable of taking action at all.  An old friend had once said, “Sometimes you have to just grab sack and go for it.”  Walter had always been a colorful guy, but off as his turn of phrase was, he had a good point.  Fortune favors the bold, and all that.  Sometimes there was nothing for it but to just go and give it your all, and see where things end up.  Endlessly fretting accomplishes nothing.

Jo shook her head and replied to Grant, “Safety precautions, remember?  No personnel are allowed aboard ship for another day.  They would be putting their people in greater danger, and what benefit would they gain?”

Grant pursed his lips, considering.  Then after a moment, he nodded.  “Makes sense.  Once we’re on the ship, they’ve lost a bit of the initiative, too.  Best to keep us off the ship.  And they’ll do that by meeting us at the airlock.”

Jo nodded.

“Ok then.  We’ll hold them off long enough for you two to get aboard.  I hope you have some way to stop them from following after that, though.”  The implication was clear: he and his brother would not be around to offer resistance for long after shots started flying.

Jo swallowed, but kept her Captain In Charge face on full display.  “As soon as we’re through, I’ll close all airlocks and break seal with the forward and aft loading rings.  That should buy us enough time to initiate an emergency reactor startup and get underway.”  She frowned, a thought occurring to her..  “You could come with us, you know.  Four will not use much more resources than two.  There’s no need…”

Thomas cut her off.  “Don’t think we haven’t considered that one.”  He and Grant exchanged a long look that ended in mutual shrugs.  “If we see a way to make it aboard without jeopardizing the mission, we’ll take it,” Thomas said finally.  “But don’t wait for us.”

There was not much left to say after that.

*  *  *  *  *

The remainder of the journey to the loading rings’ hub passed uneventfully.  Just as with the station itself, the loading ring access tubes were arrayed radially, with the lift access hatches revolving slowing around the hub’s circumference.  Also as in the station hub, there were separate lifts and accesses for cargo and for personnel.

Jo’s group took care to avoid the former in choosing a lift, and before long they were ensconced in a lift, smaller than the they had used earlier but still spacious enough to fit the loader in without too much difficulty.  As always when entering a lift from the zero-g side, the wall seemed to come up and crash into them – gently –  and they found themselves pressed up against it until they pushed themselves down to the lift’s “floor”.  The g’s were not much, not yet, but they were enough to at least give them a sense of up and down.  From the looks on Grant and Thomas’ face, that was quite a relief.

Agrippa’s rings were only a kilometer across and the loading rings had been sized to fit her, so the trip to the lower level and the main access airlocks placed was quite a bit quicker than the trip up the station’s ring had been, as was the increase in g’s.  In just a couple minutes Jo found herself flexing her muscles and working her joints as they hit full Earth-normal acceleration.  It felt good, but also a little awkward, even after such a comparatively short time in zero-g.

And then an electronic chime announced the lift’s imminent arrival at Deck One.

Grant and Thomas unlimbered their rifles and raised them to a ready position.  Malcolm did the same as Jo hopped back aboard the loader and restarted its engine.  It was time to meet their fate, whatever it was.

* * * * *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Saturday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!