Pre-Order: The Falconer’s Stairs

It’s official.  The release date is set, and The Falconer’s Stairs (Glimmer Vale Chronicles #5) is now up for pre-order everywhere.

Jared Tolburt twice almost cost Raedrick Baletier and Julian Hinderbrook their lives: once when he turned on them while they were fleeing the Army, and again when he unwittingly led a group of bandits into Glimmer Vale.  While fighting off the bandits, Raedrick and Julian found a cryptic, magically protected letter that hinted at the location of a great treasure.  Now, with help from Melanie Klemins, Lydelton’s resident mage, Tolburt intends to claim that treasure for his own.

The treasure is hidden far away from Glimmer Vale, and guarded by both physical and magical obstacles.  With Raedrick unable to travel due to his wife’s pregnancy and Melanie eager to assist Tolburt in his quest, Julian has to do the last thing he ever wanted: travel with and help the man he trusts least in the world.

Far from their home and beset with dangers of all kinds, Julian, Melanie, and Tolburt will have to depend on each other even to survive, let alone succeed in their quest for The Falconer’s Stairs.

But Tolburt already sold Julian out once when the going got tough.  What’s to say he would not do it again?

The sale price is $4.99, and the release date is 15 April.  Members of my Advanced Reviewers Program will receive their review copies by next Sunday, 26 March.

So go, grab a copy.  Read, enjoy, and leave a review somewhere!

🙂

New Release

Hola folks!

As I promised last week, Robbed Blind, Glimmer Vale Chronicles #4, is now up for pre-order.

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A stunning robbery threatens to bring Lydelton’s economy to its knees, and it is up to Julian and Raedrick to find the culprits. With the year’s first trading caravan in town and the missing funds needed for vital transactions, time is of the essence. Fortunately, the Constables have assistance in the form of a team of Royal Marshalls, in town for a prisoner transfer. But they have an agenda of their own, and Raedrick and Julian must tread carefully to avoid revealing the secret of their own past.

With few leads and little time, the Constables will need to use all of their skill and wit to solve the case and save their adopted home from ruin.

The release is set for 4 December, but you can pre-order it now on Amazon, iBooks, Smashwords, and Kobo.

 

I also took the liberty of combining five of my novellas and novelettes into a single book.  This is the second time I’ve done this.  The first was called Tales of Adventure, so I went ahead and called this one Tales of Adventure #2.

Tales of Adventure 2 700x1050

A sword-for-hire quests to defeat an evil Necromancer.

A young girl discovers that music has a magic of its own.

An FBI interrogator discovers a chilling conspiracy.

A shipwreck unleashes a supernatural monster onto the inhabitants of a tropical island.

A washed-up electrician battles a monster from beyond our universe.

Tales of Adventure #2 is a collection of five science fiction and fantasy novelettes and novellas: The Necromancer’s Lair, A Note Of Magic, Facilitated Interrogation, The Beast And The God-Woman, and What Lurks Between.

It’s now available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, and Google Play.  Smashwords will follow shortly.

 

Go.  Buy.  Read.  Enjoy.

And leave some reviews.

🙂

Pericles Re-Covered

I’ll keep this one brief, because it’s a busy day.

For a while, I’ve thought The Pericles Conspiracy needs a new cover.  The original one (that I made) is ok and looks nice but doesn’t really portray the genre and theme/tone of the book correctly.  So a few months ago, I hired Trevor Smith  to make a new one.  For those of you who may not know, Trevor is the artist who won the grand prize in the Writers and Illustrators of the Future contest for 2013.  So yeah, he’s well beyond good.  🙂

Anyway, long story short, the job is done and the new cover is here.  And it is much, much, much better than the old one.  To wit,

The old:

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Pericles Paperback cropped

 

The new:

Pericles Ebook Cover (700x1132)

ThePericlesConspiracyPaperback - Reduced

Pretty awesome, right?  🙂

The cover’s been updated everywhere the book is available, with the exception of the print version. Just waiting on the proof copy’s arrival to finish that step.  Good times, good times.

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 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!

Tollard’s Peak – LIVE!

Ok, it actually went live yesterday, and I neglected to to you about it.  Sorry about that.  But it’s true: Tollard’s Peak (Glimmer Vale Chronicles #3) is now live for sale.

Tollard's Peak Ebook Cover - 600x900

Winter in Glimmer Vale – a time to remain close to shelter or, preferably, indoors. Most definitely not a time to brave the mountain peaks surrounding the valley. Raedrick and Julian certainly have no intention of doing so until a man from their past, nearly dead from exposure, appears at the outskirts of Lydelton. Once recovered, he tells them of his friend who lies injured on the flank of Tollard’s Peak, the tallest mountain in the region. Unable to ignore the stranded fellow’s need, the two Constables form a party to rescue him.

But there is more to the story than it first appeared, and very soon Raedrick and Julian find themselves struggling against far more than the elements as they brave the perilous peak. It will take all of their strength and resolve to survive their quest and get to the bottom of the mystery that drew these men into the bleak cold of the mountainside. And they are not the only ones who are searching.

It’s priced at $2.99, and you can find it on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Google Play.  It’s not live on iTunes yet because Apple is still processing it.

You can also obtain it in trade paperback for $15.95.  At the moment the only place to get it is through the Createspace e-store, but it will show up on all the usual print channels shortly.

 

And don’t forget, Glimmer Vale is now free on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iTunes, Google Play, and Smashwords, in case you’d rather begin at the start of the series.  All I ask is you leave a (glowing) review on Amazon and Goodreads, and anywhere else you care to.

 

So that’s the big exciting news.  I know I owe you a chapter.  I’ll give it to you tomorrow.  🙂

For now, go.  Read.  Enjoy!

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-Seven

Another Saturday, another chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy.  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-Seven

Piloting

Maneuvering a starliner away from a Station is a slow, complicated process.  Normally, the Station and ship decouple from each other simultaneously, after tugs have attached to the ship’s tow points.  The Station Pilot, an expert on that particular Station’s quirks who augments the crew for underway and docking, issues orders to the tugs, and they carefully extract the ship from the Station’s mating tunnels, which never fully retract.  The ship’s thrusters, much larger and more powerful than the tugs, were never used.  The slow process ensured no damage would occur to either ship or Station.

Jo did not have time for any of that.

For one thing, it was not like that Station was going to just oblige and retract the mating tunnels.  Oh, the Station personnel probably would – they would not want the Station damaged – but Jo doubted Chandini would allow them.  To do so would be to admit defeat, or worse, to allow Jo to get away, and Jo did not see Chandini going there.  Beyond that, every moment they lingered was a moment Chandini and her goons could try something else, like, for instance, an EVA into Agrippa’s shuttle bay, which lay open to space.  It would be damn hard to stop that, and all the mischief they could cause once inside there.

So it fell to Jo to get the ship underway.  Herself.  Without help.

She had never done that.

“I need to get to the bridge,” Jo said.  She could operate the thrusters from Control, sure.  But the bridge afforded much better visibility and, frankly, she felt more comfortable trying this from there.  “Are you ok to stay here?”  She looked at Grant.

He looked like hell warmed over.  The bleeding had stopped from his head wound, but his face was covered in clotted blood.  His eyes were red and it was obvious he was in a great deal of pain: physical, and otherwise.  Jo was not sure how he had not shut down completely, considering.

He nodded.  “Good to go.”

Jo suspected he was lying, but there really was nothing much to be done about it right then.  “Ok.  Keep an eye on the security feeds.  Let me know if you see anything untoward.”  She pointed out the internal communication pad to the left of his workstation.  “Use this channel to reach me.”

He nodded again.  “Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

She was going to need it.

*  *  *  *  *

Like on Pericles, Agrippa’s bridge lay in a bulbous protrusion near the forward end of the ship’s hub.  It took a couple minutes to get there, and Jo sweated every second.  But she was reasonably sure the time she spent in transit was not enough to allow Chandini to do anything too bad to throw a wrench in her plans.  Hopefully.

The bridge was simply arranged: just a pilot’s station forward, with ship’s control and diagnostic workstations to the front and left and communications to the right, and the command station, directly behind and above the pilot.  Each station was designed like a high-end lounge chair that was hard mounted to the deck, allowing no swiveling, only a forward and aft adjustment.  All around the two stations was plastiglass, allowing a 360 degree azimuthal view, as well as a mostly unimpaired view upward.

Being located on the hub, zero-g ruled at the present, but that would not always be the case.  During the year of acceleration away from the origin star and of deceleration as the ship approached the destination, the thrust from the main engines would create acceleration forces down the length of the ship.  Since the bridge had to be used then as well, the deck around and between the two stations was tiered to act as stairs, and ladders were mounted to allow access from the bridge entrance corridor to the stations.

Jo did not like the bridge during acceleration and deceleration.  Working there during that time meant sitting with your back on the floor, essentially.  It could be awkward.  Zero-g made it a lot easier to maneuver around.

But that was neither here nor there.  Jo strapped herself into the pilot’s station and keyed the internal comms channel to Reactor Control.  “How we looking, Malcolm?”

Malcolm’s voice came back clear and strong, but strained.  “This plant is nice,” he said.  “A lot easier to operate than what we had on Pericles.”

“Great.  What’s your ETA?”

There was a short pause.  “Going to be another ten or fifteen minutes.”

Damnit.  Well, she knew getting the plant up very much quicker than normal had been a long shot.  As it was, Malcolm was setting a speed record.  “Ok.  Report when you’ve completed.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Jo was certain she heard more than a bit of irony in that.  She rolled her eyes.

Next, she keyed up the 1MC, which would allow her to talk ship-wide.  “All hands prep for acceleration forces.  Initiating maneuvering thruster firing.”

She paused, in case Malcolm or Grant had any objections.  Ten seconds passed with no word.  Good enough.  She called up the maneuvering thruster controls and took a moment to assess the situation.

The main problem was the mating tunnels, on the Station’s Loading Rings.  They rotated in time with the ship’s rings, being driven by their own turning motors that were synched up with the ship’s upon docking.  With the ship decoupled, though, The difference in mass between the ship’s rings and the Stations’ meant that the two sets of structures would begin to change their rates of rotation, relative to each other.  Normally this would not be an issue since standard procedure entailed the Station securing rotation and retracting the rings.  That did not happen this time, beyond the initial retraction that went along with decoupling.  People on the station could not have stopped that if they wanted to; it was automatic, and pulled the mating tunnel back two meters away from the ship to avoid any inadvertent impact before ring retraction.

Jo looked out at the slowly moving tunnels all around her, like the bars of a great cage, and swallowed hard.  There was enough mass in one of those tunnels to seriously damage Agrippa.  Maybe not cripple her, but it would make driving her very difficult.  Not to mention the fact that anyone within those tunnels would be seriously injured or killed by such a collision.

She was going to have to time this perfectly.

Jo reached out for the control stick but had to stop to wipe the sweat from her palm.  She was more nervous than…  She could not recall when she had been this nervous.  Even breaking into Camp Tycho seemed routine compared with this, maybe because she really did not know all the risks involved then, the countless things that could go wrong.  But here, in her own element…  Jo found she was suddenly terrified.

She should not have been surprised when the communication station beeped just then, indicating the ship was being hailed.  That did not stop her from all but jumping out of her seat; she might have, had she not strapped herself in.  Jo glanced to the right and saw Chandini’s face on the comms display.  From the room behind her, she was most definitely onboard Gagarin; in the Station’s Control Center unless Jo missed her guess.  Unlike the last time, in the lift, Chandini did not look the least bit pleased, or amused.  If anything, her expression could be said to indicate a towering fury.

At least she did not look so damn smug anymore.

Jo considered ignoring the hail.  But decades of underway etiquette, and no small amount of curiosity, rebelled against that.  So she reached over and tapped the console, accepting the hail.

“Deputy Director,” Jo said, nodding in greeting.  She kept her tone neutral, professional.  Might as well keep things cordial, if possible.

“I applaud your determination, but this madness has gone quite far enough, Captain,” Chandini said.  “Recouple that ship immediately and surrender yourselves.”

“Why on Earth would I do that?”

“Jo.”  Harold’s voice intruded into to the conversation.  The camera zoomed out a little, and Jo saw him sitting next to Chandini.  He looked stressed, worried.  He looked to be in handcuffs.  “Do as she says, Jo.  Please.”

Jo sat still, stunned into silence.

“You are surprised to see Mr. Jameson.”  Chandini said it as a statement of fact.  “You should not be.  He is in custody because of you.”

Bullshit.  “Harry had nothing to do with this.  He didn’t know…”

Chandini chuckled softly.  “Someone has to be held responsible.  If you make your grand getaway,” she said that with oceans of sarcasm, “which you will not, I assure you, the responsibility falls to him.”  Her lips turned upward in a vicious little smile.  “The burden of command.  But then, you know all about that, don’t you Captain?”

Jo swallowed.  So that was how it was going to be.  Emotional blackmail.  “And how are you going to explain that one?”

“The story writes itself.  A corrupt corporate executive plots with his underlings to steal a multi-billion credit ship with the intent of selling it to the black marketeers on Muir Solace.  A pity he got caught before he could meet his compatriots in orbit.”  His brow furrowed.  “And a still greater pity that his accomplices were killed when they refused orders to surrender and heave to.”  She shook her head.  “The CO of the warship in pursuit received a nice decoration and promotion, though.  And McAllister’s insurance more than covered the loss.”

Chandini’s words caused a hollow feeling in the pit of Jo’s stomach.  Of course they would send a warship.  She had considered that possibility, and discounted it as being too public, impossible to cover up.  Apparently she should not have.  Agrippa had no weapons, save for small arms for the crew in case of an encounter with pirates or some internal disturbance.  There was no way they could fight off a warship, if one was vectored at them.

The only hope would be to outfly it.  Jo did not place much hope there, but it was all she had.

“Thank you for the warning,” she said, then looked at Harold.  “I’m sorry, Harry.”  And she meant it.  The pain she felt, knowing he was going to take the fall for this, was like a knife in the heart.  But she could not turn back.  Whatever slim hope she had here, aboard Agrippa, there was no hope at all in surrender.

She looked away from the Comms display and tapped the control stick to port.  The starboard side thrusters fired, ever so briefly, pressing Jo against the side of her seat for a moment, and Agrippa began to move laterally.

“Jesus Christ,” someone said in the Control Station behind Chandini.  “She’s actually fucking doing it!”

“Retract the Loading Rings,” ordered an authoritative voice, causing Chandini to spin around.

“No!” she ordered.  “Do not touch those controls.”  Her voice was command itself, and would brook no objections.

But, bless him, the Station Commander – it could only be him, and it was a he on Gagarin, a pleasantly efficient fellow whose name Jo could not remember just then – raised an objection anyway.  “But ma’am, if she hits those rings, it could destroy the ship and the loading rings both.  We’d be risking a hull breach, depressurization…”

“Then the ship gets destroyed,” Chandini snapped.  She jabbed a finger at him, or at least Jo assumed it was a finger, it was hard to see from the angle.  “If you touch those controls you will never see the outside of a prison cell, I promise you.”

Silence, the kind of silence that only comes from sudden fear, followed her words.  Chandini watched them all for a long several seconds, then turned back to Jo.  Her lips were pressed together in a thin, angry line.  “Have it your way, Captain.”

Just before the comms display went dark, Jo thought for a moment that she saw the faintest shadow of a smile on Harold’s face.

*  *  *  *  *

Jo had no time to dwell on the future, whether hers or Harold’s.  The ship was moving, and the rings were getting closer.

She had been very careful to apply only lateral thrust, and was gratified to see the ship slipping easily away in a straight line from its moored position.  That was the first place the maneuver could go wrong, but a quick look around showed that the mating tube couplings had cleared the ship’s rings cleanly, at least for the moment.  While the port side of the ship was clear, the hub and the starboard side still were in danger.

The hub was the key problem.  As long as she did not impart any forward or aft thrust, the starboard side of the rings should clear just fine.  The hub, though…  Go too slowly, and the mating tunnels would strike the hub straight on.  The tunnels were not particularly resilient, and Agrippa’s hub had been built to withstand up to 1.5g’s of acceleration.  But that was mostly in the bulkhead structure.  The skin of the ship was relatively thin, to conserve on mass.  There was a good chance that a direct impact could breach the hull in several locations, and if that happened…

No sense dwelling on it.

The ship slipped further to port, the hub drawing ever closer to the rotating tunnels.  Fortunately, there were only four of them.  But…were they speeding up?

Her eyes did not deceive her.  The loading rings’ rotation had begun to speed up markedly, and showed no signs of stopping.  Jo hoped they had cleared all personnel out of them before doing that.  Already the g’s would be well above Earth-normal.  Too much more, and they could injure people.

It would also make Jo’s task that much harder.  It was one thing to time a constantly moving object.  An accelerating object, though…

This was going to be bad.

One hundred meters.

Sweat trickled down Jo’s brow and she wiped it away with annoyance.  It was just flying.

Fifty meters.  One of the tunnels was approaching.

Twenty meters.  The tunnel swooped down through her field of vision, passing the hub to port.  The next one was coming up quickly.  It was now or never.

Jo applied port thrust, a long drawn out burn that pressed her against the side of her seat again for several seconds.  Agrippa began moving more quickly, shooting for the gap.

Jo looked up and saw the next tunnel sweeping down toward her at what appeared to be great speed.  She cringed; if it struck, it would crush the bridge, and her with it, like an aluminum can.  Better than dying in a vacuum.

The tunnel passed directly overhead, perilously near now.  Jo braced herself.  It would hit in a second.

And then it was past, sweeping down the starboard side of Agrippa’s hub with maybe centimeters to spare.  If this had been an old science fiction movie, she would have expected a WOOSHING sound, and just then, ludicrous as such a sound effect was in space, it seemed like it would be more fitting than the silent brush with death that had just occurred.

Jo breathed a sigh of relief and applied port thrust again, and, just like that, the starboard side rings were clear as well.

It was time to get the hell out of here.

* * * * *

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!