I made another video, this one pimping The Pericles Conspiracy.
I made another video, this one pimping The Pericles Conspiracy.
Took long enough, but we’re down to it. The last chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. Whew. Took long enough, right? If you’ve liked it, please leave a review on Goodreads or elsewhere. And, of course, pick up the full book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Google Play, or iTunes.
It’s just $0.99 this weekend, to celebrate.
From Out Of The Blue
Ilena Dmitrikov yawned and leaned back in her chair, rubbing at her eyes to ward off sleep.
It had been a long shift, and there were still four hours left to go. Her brain felt fuzzy and it was all she could do to keep her eyes open. It was her own damn fault, of course. She knew better than to stay out late the evening before she had the duty. But it was Jasmine’s last day aboard the station, and Ilena would never have forgiven herself if she missed the going away party.
And the after party.
Another yawn burst forth and she kicked her chair back from her station. She needed to stand up. Move around, get the blood flowing.
Her back, stiff from sitting for so long, protested as she straightened. Grimacing, she raised her arms up over her head, the loose white fabric of her uniform blouse falling down around her shoulder as she did so, and stretched the way her Yoga instructors taught her. She went all the way up onto her tip toes, her soft pseudo-leather shoes flexing easily as though part of her skin, and she felt a slight pop from somewhere in the middle of her back. All at once, the discomfort went away and she was left with only a blissful feeling of relaxation.
Exhaling slowly, she lowered her arms and sunk back down onto the flats of her feet. Much better.
A sudden sensation, very like someone poking at her with a blunt piece of soft plastic, brought her attention back to her station.
Unless one was logged in, the station did not look like much: just an empty space at the end of a small, oblong room with grey-blue walls and faux-wood paneled floor and ceiling. But to her eyes, the space was alive with data. The readouts from every craft in this sector of the outer solar system, the status of every communications relay, every outpost were instantly available to her if she but reached for them.
She sat back down and slid forward, and found herself surrounded by space in all its immensity. Even just her little portion was awe-inspiring. As always, it took her a moment to re-acclimate, to force down the mixture of vertigo and exhilarated joy she felt as she floated in the void, observing all that occurred. Of course, it was just a simulation, but what did it matter? It still was enough to take one’s breath away.
The moment passed, as it always did, and the tugging at her consciousness drew her attention to the far edge of her assigned sector, to the southeast-by-east edge of the Oort Cloud. Two objects that were not present before she went through her wake-up routine caught her eye immediately, as much because they were outlined in glimmering silver, a construct of the sim that was designed to draw attention to new contacts, as because they were so much different than anything else flying.
The first was a long cylinder-shaped craft with several great spheres surrounding its after half and what looked like two rings – rings! – About a third of the way from its bow. The second was larger, off-white, and crescent-shaped.
Ilena frowned. Where had they come from?
A thought reversed the sim image of the two vessels – they could only be vessels – until they suddenly vanished again.
She blinked, and the sim began playing forward again.
There was a momentary flash of light and then…something happened. It was like space itself bent and twisted. Ilena would not have noticed except a star opposite the area where it occurred suddenly became distorted and then vanished. In its place was only a reddish-yellow circle that hung there for a second or two, doing nothing. Then, the cylinder-ship shout out of the circle, followed by the crescent, a few seconds later.
The strange circle, or hole, or whatever it was closed abruptly behind them, and space returned to normal.
The sim froze as Ilena realized what she had just seen. A wormhole. Hyperspace portal. Whatever the different theorists called it, it was supposed to be nigh-on impossible to create. And yet, what else could it have been?
Her earlier fatigue long-since forgotten, Ilena gave quick thought to a report for Headquarters, in Geneva, and reset the sim to current time.
The two objects drifted together, the crescent having taken station off the cylinder’s port side. The orbital computations took less time than it took to query for them. They were on an intercept heading for Earth.
The message popped into Ilena’s vision and she checked it over quickly, then with a thought sent it flying. They were several light hours away. Conceivably there would be plenty of time for follow-up before the two craft could pose a serious threat, but given what she had just seen there was nothing to be gained from delaying her report for further analysis.
Which did not mean she was not going to investigate further.
The sim zoomed in on the pair of ships and Ilena’s breath caught in her throat. At the higher magnification, she recognized both instantly. The cylinder ship was an old Achilles-class starliner. What the hell was one of those doing flying around? The last of them were decommissioned over two hundred years ago, when the Higgs-Carpenter drive rendered their plasma-impulse engines and centripetal rings obsolete.
But the other….
For her entire NSA career, Ilena had seen images of that other ship. Grainy images, by modern standards, shot through old-style telescopic cameras centuries ago. Images of an alien craft that housed beings with the ability to invade a person’s mind, turn otherwise good and loyal men and women against their own race. A craft that she and her comrades must constantly guard against.
A craft that now appeared in her sim display.
Ilena swallowed hard against the surge of fear that swept over her. She had to stay under control. Record as much as possible. Any piece of data, no matter how seemingly insignificant, could make the difference between survival and destruction at these beings’ hands.
But she had never thought to really see such a craft.
For a full minute, she just watched the two craft drift in formation, every second bringing them closer to Earth. She could not think of what to do. The boogey-man from her earliest training was here.
And she did not know what to do.
Finally, she pulled her attention back and looked to the nearest defense outpost: the Charon battery. The two craft were almost within range. Maybe the battery could intervene.
That small action got the rest of her mental gears turning. She thought out a follow-up message for Earth, including her intentions to intercept with Charon, and sent it, chopping Charon in the transmission. Then she settled back to wait for a response. Local time appeared over the two crafts and the battery on Charon when she thought of it, along with the crafts’ time to Closest Point of Approach at Charon.
Ilena frowned. They would reach CPA in about three hours. There was no way she would receive a reply from Earth in that time.
It was up to her.
Ilena reached out with her thoughts to the Charon battery, and a heartbeat later she was part of the systems on the icy moon. The systems came online at her mind’s touch, the weapons began powering up from their long slumber. Death incarnated into plasma, fusion pulse torpedoes, and less exotic missiles and mass cannons came to train on the patch of space where the approaching crafts would pass.
And then she waited.
Gradually, imperceptibly except for her sim-heightened awareness, the crafts drew closer. She thought up the countdown timer. CPA in one hour.
Ilena licked her lips in anticipation.
Then something else tugged on her consciousness. Something new, and unexpected. Unexpected because she had not sensed this particular tug in years, since her training back on Titan.
She frowned and cast a thought toward the new stimulus. The communications window flashed open, familiar and set up just as it always was. Her frown deepened. What was it?
And then she saw it. At the bottom of the display, an old group of frequencies and modulation patterns that went out of use more than a century ago. She had always wondered why the NSA bothered to include them in its monitoring algorithms anymore, why they had trained her on them. Looking at the ancient starliner, apparently back from the scrapyard, she suddenly realized exactly why.
The people in charge were expecting an encounter like this.
That spike of fear flooded through her again. Ilena tried to push it away, to no avail. She pulled away from Charon – it was set to go and would take care of itself, only needing her input for the final engagement sequence – and shot out through the void toward the pair of ships. This time she zoomed in as far as she could, until the starliner appeared nearly life-size in front of her.
There, on the port bow. Markings. Hard to read in the dim light from the distant sun, despite the ship’s hull illumination lights. But she managed to see the vessel’s name: Agrippa.
Ilena recoiled, physically and mentally, and almost pushed herself out of the interface station again.
It could not be!
But then, the other vessel from her training was there, large as life. Why not the traitorous Agrippa as well?
What else were you expecting? What else could you expect?
The thoughts were true, but knowing what ship that was and seeing it for true were two different things. If this was Agrippa…. Was it possible her Captain drove her still, like some ghost ship out of ancient legend?
It was nonsense, of course. Ghosts did not exist, and people did not live nearly long enough for her Captain to still be aboard. But if not…who was flying the famous, cursed ship?
Without realizing what she was doing, Ilena returned to the communications controls and keyed the old channels to life.
The sim in front of her flickered, then coalesced into a quadrilateral of static for a brief half-second before resolving into the image of a more than handsome woman of east-asian descent. Her hair was long, black but heavily streaked with silver, and pulled back from her face into a ponytail. She wore black fatigues of some kind and sat in a chair facing her transmitting station, no doubt. Flanking her were two men: one tall and slender, African, with even more grey than she had, the other shorter and more stocky, of central European descent from the looks of him and only a bit of grey at his temples.
Ilena’s heart skipped a beat. She knew those faces. The traitors. On instinct, she moved her thoughts to the Charon battery, but the craft were too far out of range to do any good.
The asian woman smiled ever so slightly before speaking.
“Earth Control, this is Josephine Ishikawa aboard the starliner Agrippa, over.” Or at least that’s what Ilena thought she said. Some of Ishikawa’s words were indecipherable, a dialect that Ilena had never heard before. The sim did its best to fill in the gaps, but it still was difficult to be certain she had heard correctly.
Ilena licked her lips, trying to restore some moisture to her mouth. What to do? Before she realized what she was doing, she heard herself say, “This is Sol Approach, Haley sector.”
Ishikawa’s eyebrow quirked upward at the identifier that would be, to her, unfamiliar. “Haley sector, this is Ishikawa, aboard Agrippa. Malcolm Ngubwe is here with me.” The tall African nodded gravely. “As well as Grant Gilford.” The European flashed a quick smile that almost looked forced. “We’ve come home, and we’ve brought some new friends with us. Request safe passage through the solar system, and permission to approach and dock at Earth. We have a lot to discuss, and our friends are eager to meet with Earth’s leadership. They pledge non-aggression for the duration of our stay.”
Ilena found herself unable to put a coherent thought together for some time, let alone respond. They were really here, the demons and traitors everyone had been warned about. She should just blast them out of the sky. Her superiors would advise her to do just that.
And yet, looking at the Ishikawa woman’s eyes, serious but unguarded, and those of her companions, Ilena suddenly found it hard to assign the raving lunatic label to them even though it had been passed down for so many years.
She did not know how to answer her own thoughts. But something told her that this woman and her crew was not an immediate threat. And besides, there were many more batteries ready and able to unleash death in all its forms the closer to the inner solar system they approached, and they were only two ships. If they were indeed a threat, it would become plain soon enough, and the batteries and ready warships could take care of it.
Ilena made her decision. With a thought, she secured the battery at Charon, putting it back into sleep mode. Then she replied, “Permission granted to transit, Agrippa. For docking, contact orbital approach control on 327.483, modulation Alpha-six-two.”
Ishikawa’s eyebrows raised and she mouthed the channel identifiers to herself, then glanced at Ngubwe. He frowned but, after a moment, nodded. Apparently the ship’s communications array could handle that channel.
Ishikawa returned the nod then faced forward. “Roger, Haley sector. Thank you. Agrippa out.”
The transmission winked out. Ilena thought up an update to headquarters and sent it. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew her lack of action here might incur the wrath of her superiors, but somehow that seemed alright. She stared for a long time at the old starliner, drifting with its unknowable companion, and some of that fear she had felt before receded, replaced once more by exhilaration.
“Welcome home,” she said, to no one, and to everyone.
* * * * *
I hope you enjoyed The Pericles Conspiracy.
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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Google Play, or iTunes. Thanks!
Two more chapters to go on The Pericles Conspiracy. I need to start thinking about what to share with you guys next, I suppose. More to follow on that. For now, it’s on to chapter sixty-two. And don’t forget to pick up the full book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Google Play, or iTunes.
“My God,” Grant breathed, his voice hushed, awed.
He was looking out the port side observation window on the bridge at the alien ship in formation with them, his mouth agape.
And who could blame him? Not one but two alien starships – or perhaps warships – running in clear view in a tight formation with your own ship was not exactly an everyday sight. It was one thing to know intellectually what was coming. It was another thing entirely for it to actually happen, for you to definitively see that not only was there other intelligent life in the galaxy, but it was more advanced than man.
Jo could relate. Even though it was not her first meeting with these creatures, she still felt a giddy excitement mixed with primal terror, just looking at them. Of course, even had this been her thousandth meeting with them, she expected her reaction would be the same, considering her mission this time.
“How do we play this?” Malcolm asked.
Jo looked over to where he hovered on the starboard side of the bridge, his arms crossed over his chest in an almost defensive manner and his brow furrowed in thought, or worry. Again, who could blame him, if it was the latter?
Jo shrugged. “Same way as on Pericles. We secure ring rotation and the exterior illumination lights, shine the mooring lights on the airlock we want them to come aboard through, and wait. Unless you have a better idea?”
Malcolm remained silent for a short while, considering.
Grant spoke before he did. “If it was me, I would not just come over to an unknown vessel just because they shined a spotlight on their airlock.”
“Why not? It worked before, and – “
“Before, they were stuck in a lifepod after their ship blew up, right?”
“So they had no choice. These guys,” Grant jerked a thumb at the ship to port, “do. And they’re probably wondering who or what we are, and what we want. If we go making sudden moves like running darkened ship, they might take that as showing hostile intent.”
Jo’s blood went cold. That would be well past bad. It would not do at all for them to have gone to all the trouble of bringing the eggs back here just to be shot down by the people they meant to deliver the eggs to. She tried to think of a way around Grant’s logic, but after a moment she realized he was right. How would she react if one of those alien ships just showed up in the Sol system and started acting strangely? How would United Earth Military react?
“Good point,” Jo said. “Do you have a suggestion?”
Grant nodded. “They obviously received our signal. Why don’t you play that message you supposedly have in that black flashlight-thing for them over the radio? That ought to show them we are on the level. Then we can work out how to bring them aboard, so we can give them their kids back.”
It boggled Jo’s mind how she could miss something so obvious.
Shaking her head in chagrin, she said, “I’ll be right back,” then headed below.
The trip down the lift to Ring A seemed to take forever, though it was only a few minutes. From there it was a quick jog to the cargo space where they had stowed the incubator and loader. The black rod the alien Captain gave her onboard Pericles was right where she left it before hitting the cryo-tank: safely enclosed in a small bin, a few spots down from the incubator, that was meant to hold delicate items that needed to be stored separately.
Feeling an almost reverent rush, she lifted the rod out of the bin and stared at it for a moment. So many monumental things had happened because of the information in this thing, and the precious cargo within the incubator. It seemed odd that such a small device could do so much.
Malcolm’s voice over the 1MC broke her reverie. “Get up here, Jo. I think they’re getting antsy.”
Crap. Jo hurried from the cargo space, sprinting toward the lift, and the bridge.
* * * * *
Jo gave Malcolm a hard look. “We need to talk about your definition of antsy.”
Malcolm shrugged as if to say, “Hey, don’t look at me,” but did not reply.
Rolling her eyes, Jo turned away from him and looked out at the alien ships.
Two kilometers. They had maneuvered two kilometers closer and then stopped, holding position on both quarters, as before. They were just drifting along in time with Agrippa, not doing anything. And he called that acting antsy.
Easy for you to say now.
And that was true. Had she been up on the bridge when they maneuvered, Jo may have had the same reaction Malcolm did. Maybe. But, and she often forgot this, he was an Engineer, not a pilot. He had little to no experience in the way ships interact and how they maneuver, especially when in close proximity to each other. And it was not like they were dealing with other humans here. He could be forgiven for being a little jumpy.
For his part, Grant looked slightly amused, though there was a tightness about his eyes that belied his little grin. He was more tense than he put on. Hard to blame him there, either. Jo felt it too.
“Ok,” she said, and moved past the men toward the pilot’s station, and the communications panel to its right. “Let’s see how this works.”
A few taps on the display called up the first contact protocol display again. She paused and glanced back at Malcolm. He shrugged again, and said, “It’s worth a shot.”
Jo activated the local microphone and looked down at the rod, at the three little buttons inlaid into one side. The first called up the starmap and the third the technical schematics, their payment. The second was what she needed now, but for some reason she hesitated to play the message. It almost felt like a sacred act, doing that. Like playing the message would consummate everything she had worked for these last weeks. Last decades. Better to not listen to that little voice.
Jo shook her head at her silliness and tapped the transmit button, then she pressed the second button on the rod. The image of the alien Captain’s face appeared in the air, a holographic projection, and began speaking in the aliens’ language of barks, growls, and hisses. The Captain continued for some time, explaining, Jo hoped, what had happened to their ship and that they had entrusted the eggs to Jo and her crew.
Of course, he could be saying something else entirely. He could be telling his brethren to kill them and use the starmap to invade Earth, now that humans had been foolish enough to reveal themselves.
Jo forced such thoughts away. She would not give in to paranoia. And anyway, it was far too late to do anything to avert that invasion, if such was really the aliens’ intention. Which it wasn’t.
Lord, let it be so.
* * * * *
One airlock looks much the same as any other, but this one held particular importance to Jo. It was here, or at least at the equivalent airlock on Pericles – and they were identical – where she greeted the alien Captain and his crew as they stepped aboard her ship.
And you almost got your throat ripped out.
Jo ground her teeth and tried not to remember that part of the first meeting. She drew a deep breath and looked at Malcolm. He floated weightlessly at the airlock control panel, at the ready.
Just as Grant proposed, after playing the message over the radio circuits, he and Malcolm had moved the incubator into position at this airlock. Then Jo secured ring rotation and all external illumination except for the running lights and anti-collision strobes, and turned the mooring spotlights onto the airlock outer door. Then she transferred ring rotation and external sensor control to the airlock workstation and hurried to join Malcolm and Grant here.
The aliens had been stoic in their response to the message, in that they did nothing. At least nothing that Jo could see before she left the bridge. By the time she joined the men at the airlock, that nothing had changed to…nothing.
Jo was beginning to wonder whether they really had received her transmissions, either of them, when the workstation beeped an alert. She tapped the screen and the display shifted to the aft upper camera, which was trained on the alien vessel to starboard. The display showed a small, round object drop from the ventral section of the alien ship and proceed a few hundred meters down then stop completely before advancing at a brisk pace toward Agrippa.
“Looks like they got the message,” Grant said from beside her, a certain satisfaction in his tone.
Jo nodded. “They’ll be here in a minute. Take station.”
And so they arrayed themselves, Jo in the center of the room next to the incubator, Malcolm at the airlock controls, and Grant over to the right. Despite his satisfaction that his suggestion had payed off, Grant looked nervous and downright uncomfortable.
Probably feels naked without a gun.
Jo smirked inwardly. Well, maybe not entirely inwardly. Grant had pressed hard to have at least one of them armed, preferably himself, for this meeting.
“It makes sense,” he said. “I have the most training. If we need to defend ourselves – “
Jo had cut him off with a shake of her head and a raised hand. “If we need to defend ourselves, we’re dead anyway. Even if we fight the ones in the shuttle off, the ships will just open fire. I am not going to risk this meeting going wrong. Not this time.”
Grant hated it, but he was forced to concede to her logic, and acquiesced.
Now, looking at him, so obviously ill at ease, Jo knew she was right not to let him grab a gun. He just might shoot before thinking. Not that he had ever even come close to doing that before, but that was just another added risk onto a mission that was risky enough already.
“Everyone ready?” Jo asked, trying to keep her voice calm and in command. She was actually surprised at how well she accomplished that.
Nods all around.
Jo turned her attention to the workstation display. Malcolm had called up the airlock’s external camera, and it revealed the alien shuttle on approach. It was remarkably similar to the lifepod Jo remembered from the first ship, with a number of circular protuberances on various locations and strange hieroglyphs that Jo presumed were the aliens’ language. The biggest difference she saw was while the lifepod had been roughly spherical, the shuttle was flat on one side. Jo surmised that side housed landing gear of some sort. Maybe it was capable of atmospheric re-enty? Agrippa’s shuttle could not do that; no need, or at least so the designers had said. But Jo could see all sorts of useful reasons for that capability.
The shuttle stopped even with the airlock then rotated until the flat side faced the ring’s outer edge. A moment later, one of the protuberances bulged slightly, then parted allowing a circular tunnel to cross the intervening distance between the shuttle and the airlock outer door. Just before it reached the airlock, the end of the tunnel warped and convulsed, then settled into a shape that Jo knew exactly matched the airlock’s seating surface.
A soft thunk penetrated the hull as the tunnel made contact, followed by a very soft sucking sound that lasted for less than a heartbeat.
The airlock control panel beeped, and a light flashed green.
Malcolm read the display and turned back to Jo, nodding. “Soft seal.”
“Very well. Restore ring rotation.”
“Aye.” Malcolm tapped a control on the workstation and a moment later the faintest hint of a rushing noise reached Jo’s ears. “Thrusters firing,” Malcolm reported, referring to sets of thrusters mounted tangential to the rings that were used to get the rings started initially.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the bulkhead to Jo’s left began moving toward her. It always took a few moments to overcome inertia before…
“Turning motor engaged,” Malcolm said.
The wall began to speed up, and a moment later Jo found herself pressed up against it. She slid down to the deck and stepped away from the bulkhead, moving slowly to avoid bouncing off the deck in the extremely low, but steadily building, simulated g-forces. The men were moving similarly. In another circumstance it would be almost comic.
On the camera display, the aliens’ tunnel flexed and shifted slightly, but the airlock seal held and soon enough the shuttle was revolving in time with the ring as it slowly built up to its Earth-normal turning rate.
Malcolm did not wait for an order. He tapped the airlock controls, and a red light over the inner door began flashing as the outer door slid open.
Nothing happened for several minutes. Then, just as on Pericles, a doorway opened at the far end of the tunnel. For a second or two, the only thing visible from within the shuttle was a soft white-orange light. But then a pair of figures eclipsed the light and walked onto the tunnel. The doorway shut behind them.
The aliens were just as Jo recalled: short, stooped, wearing grey jumpsuits and breathing masks over their elongated snouts. Their yellow-green, scaly skin seemed to glisten in the tunnel’s lighting as they approached. And, as before, they were armed. Or at least, Jo assumed the staff-like handles that stuck up over their shoulders were the grips to weapons of some sort. She shifted on her feet uncomfortably, recalling the feel of the alien Captain’s powerful fingers clenching her throat and how those wicked-looking claws had extended from the fingertips of the Captain’s free hand.
They hardly needed any other weapons at all, if the aliens meant to do them harm.
Malcolm shifted the display to the airlock’s inner security camera as the aliens stepped over the threshold. Their movements became slightly awkward as they crossed from their tunnel into the airlock. Jo recalled that happening on Pericles as well, probably a result of them leaving their artificial gravity field and entering Agrippa’s. They recovered quickly, though, and shortly reached the inner airlock door. There they waited for a moment. Then the one on Jo’s right – it was slightly larger than its fellow and Jo presumed it was the leader – pulled the staff-looking thing out of its shoulder-harness and rapped the end of it against the airlock inner door.
“Knock knock,” Grant quipped.
Malcolm snorted out a little laugh, then tapped a command into the airlock control panel. A moment later a soft hissing sound announced the equalization of air pressure within the airlock and tunnel. He took a moment to read the display then looked back at Jo and nodded. “Equalized. Atmospheres nominal.”
“Very well.” Jo got back into position and smoothed out her clothes. Not that coveralls really needed smoothing, but it just seemed the thing to do. Then she looked her little crew over. They had done well. Damn well. Now came the payoff.
She nodded at Malcolm. “Well,” she said. “Here we go.”
Malcolm tapped the control panel, and the inner door slid open.
* * * * *
I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Tuesday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Google Play, or iTunes.
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!
We’re coming down to the end of The Pericles Conspiracy. Just three more chapters to go! Remember, if you enjoy this chapter you can pick up the full book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.
Announcing One’s Presence
The aliens’ star dominated the bridge’s forward observation window. The window was designed to automatically polarize itself to minimize glare from outside, but that ended up blacking out a significant portion of the window. Just as well that starships weren’t normally flown from visual cues.
It had been a busy day.
Jo, Malcolm, and Grant spent most of the day working in hydroponics, with just a brief interruption when the main engines cut off, right on schedule. Jo took a few minutes to maneuver the ship to point the system. Then she initiated ring rotation and went back to work with Malcolm and Grant.
They made good progress, uprooting a good third of the dead plants. They would not be able to re-plant for some time; thawing from cryo-freeze was a long, delicate process that, if not done correctly, would kill their precious seeds. It was not something Jo had any intention of rushing. Besides, the sheer immensity of Agrippa’s interior volume meant they had plenty of time before air quality became a concern, and the emergency rations would last the three of them for months. They could afford to be deliberate.
The three of them were in the crew’s mess, enjoying a meal of protein paste, when a warbling alert from the ship’s status display on the wall grabbed Jo’s attention.
Jo swallowed and exchanged looks with Malcolm and Grant, a sudden mixture of excitement and apprehension flooding her.
“Sensor data’s ready,” Malcolm said with a quirked eyebrow.
Jo nodded; she had set the alert specifically for that eventuality.
They wasted no time, running out of the mess to the lift for the bridge.
Looking at the polarized window, Jo smirked. They could have done this from Control. But there was just something about being up on the bridge. The enhanced visibility of it just seemed a more appropriate place for a journey of discovery. And besides, the bridge was located on the ship’s hub, not in one of the rings. With the main engines secured, they could enjoy zero-g for a time, something they could not partake in on the rings. Might as well have a bit of fun while they could.
“Let’s see what we have,” she said, and tapped the sensor analysis display to life.
Her earlier passive scan revealed that it was a binary star system. She should not have been surprised by that; far more systems were binary than single-star. But the system’s primary star – G-type, with about ten percent greater mass than Sol – out-shined its brown dwarf partner so completely that Jo missed the dwarf with her naked eye.
That was all well and good, but Jo wanted planetary data, and the passive sweep had been inconclusive for planets, except for one probable gas giant at the outer edge of the system’s Goldilocks Zone. If there had been more time, she could have gotten more data passively, but the analysis required to eek out planetary effects on the star was a long process.
Which was why they had been awaiting the active radar scan so eagerly.
The system took a few seconds to compile the data. The system chart, when it popped up, turned Jo’s blood to icewater.
“Oh crap,” she breathed.
Four planets. The gas giant they had already found and three worlds that were likely rocky but also were far too close to the stars to support life, or at least life like humans or the aliens she had encountered on Pericles. And that was it.
“What do you mean, oh crap?” Grant said.
“Where is it?” Malcolm asked, right on his heels.
Jo shook her head.
“Where is what?” Real fear was in Grant’s voice. He was completely out of his element, and if Jo and Malcolm had reason to be worried, how much worse would it be for him?
Jo drew in a deep breath. “The aliens’ homeworld. It should be here, but…” She trailed off, mystified.
Grant’s eyes widened and he went pale. “It’s not here?” He was almost shouting now, and Jo could not blame him. “How could it not be here?”
Jo shook her head. “I know we read the star map correctly.” She glanced at Malcolm. “Didn’t we?”
He spread his hands helplessly.
“Oh God,” Grant said. He pushed himself away from the command station and floated over to the rear of the bridge. He ran his hand through his hair and looked around frantically at the expanse of space all around them. “Oh shit.” He was about to lose it.
“Grant,” Jo said, moving over to him. “It’s ok. Relax.”
In a flash of movement, Grant grabbed her by the collar of her underway coveralls. Before she knew what was happening, her shoulders slammed painfully into the plastiglass of the port side observation window. Grant stared at her through eyes that were narrowed into angry, almost murderous, slits.
“We risked everything for this. My brother died for this. And now, these fucking alien critters AREN’T HERE???” The last came out in a roar of fury, and of pain so deep Jo felt for a moment she might drown in it of her own accord.
She opened her mouth to reply, but what was there to say? Apparently, she had been wrong, oh so wrong, in her analysis of everything. Maybe the aliens had not meant for them to bring the eggs here. Maybe… No, that made no sense. She had looked the alien leader in the eye as he – she? – made his request. As he gave them payment. The message could not have meant anything else. Could not! She must have misread the star map. There was no other explanation that made sense.
Jo began to apologize, but Malcolm interrupted.
“You two might want to take a look at this.” He sounded calm and cool, as though nothing untoward was going on in the slightest.
Grant gave a little jerk and looked away from Jo, his eyes still seething. “What?” he demanded. His expression said clearly that once he was done with Jo, Malcolm would be the next target of his ire.
Malcolm stood – floated really – with his arms at his side, his face a mask of calm. He gestured toward the sensor display.
Slowly, agonizingly slowly, Grant let up the pressure on Jo’s shoulders. He pushed himself away and bobbed over to Malcolm’s side. Jo took a moment to compose herself; her limbs were shaking and she felt a fright she had not experienced in some time. Even her brawl with Agent Moore had not called up this much fight or flight response. But then, she had gone into it reasonably sure she had a chance against Moore. With Grant… Jo did not deceive herself. She had some residual skills from her studies as a youth, but Grant was a trained expert. If he really meant to do her ill, she would not be able to stop him.
She shuddered, then drew a deep breath and forced herself to calm. Well, mostly calm. Then she maneuvered toward the two men.
“I don’t get it,” Grant said. “What am I looking at?” The fury, the terror, was gone from his voice, replaced by puzzlement and curiosity.
Malcolm smiled ever so slightly and turned his gaze on Jo. “A moon,” he said. “One of the gas giant’s moons.”
It hit Jo like a ton of bricks. Of course! It was well known that a large enough moon revolving around a gas giant could conceivably harbor life, though such places were so far exceedingly rare.
Jo halted herself next to Malcolm – on the far side of Malcolm from Grant – and peered at the display. Sure enough, the gas giant’s fourth major moon appeared to be about Earth-mass, though its radius was significantly smaller – it was likely heavy metal rich. That would explain the aliens’ compact size and great strength; the moon’s gravitational field would be substantially greater than Earth’s, at that radius.
Assuming that moon was what they were looking for.
“Track in a camera,” Jo said. She sounded a bit breathless, even to her own ears.
Malcolm nodded and brought up the observation camera control screen, then trained the camera toward the moon. It took a long minute or two for the camera to align itself and then track on the small body. Then, finally, the image from the camera came up, and Jo’s jaw dropped. Her growing tension flew away, replaced by amazed wonder.
The moon was just emerging from the gas giant’s night side. It was covered by a mass of swirling white clouds overtop a mottled blue and green surface. But Jo had seen that sort of planet many times. What caught her breath, and made her shiver a little, was a glittering ring, clearly a construction of some sort, that seemed to surround the moon. It was thick: from a more acute angle of approach than the one she was taking, Jo surmised it would probably obscure much of the moon itself.
“But what is that?” she asked. “Can you zoom in further?”
Malcolm frowned and tapped the magnification control. A moment later the image zoomed until the moon took up the entire display. The ring became clear. Jo could see several pylons of some sort that rose from the moon’s surface and joined with the ring. They could only be support structures for space elevators, which meant the entire ring had been constructed in geosynchronous orbit. Amazing!
The zoomed-in view revealed a multitude of vessels docking with and departing the ring. It was impossible for her to evaluate what each vessel’s purpose was just by looking at them, but Jo found herself calling certain smaller ones tugs, others ferries, and still others cargo carriers. Then a new kind of vessel, larger than the others, got underway, and Jo’s breath caught. She had seen that sort of vessel before. Crescent-shaped, off-white in color, with a small blister on its dorsal section that must have been its bridge, the vessel was the same make as the one they encountered on Pericles, all those years ago.
She traded looks with Malcolm and he nodded. He recognized it as well.
Jo swallowed, a shiver of both excitement and anxiety going down her spine. There was no doubt about it: this was the place.
“Son of a bitch,” Grant said.
“That about sums it up,” Jo replied, shooting him a quick grin. “I guess we know where we’re heading.”
Jo adjusted the ship’s heading to intercept that one special world. Then she left the bridge.
* * * * *
Grant surprised her.
He found her an hour later as she was walking down the main passageway in the crew’s section of Ring A, about halfway between Control and the Captain’s cabin – her cabin. He approached slowly, almost tentatively, his normal confidence giving way to uncertainty. Jo found herself quirking an eyebrow, odd as his approach was.
Grant coughed and looked at the deck. “Jo, I,” he ran his hand through his hair, then hurried on. “I wanted to apologize for how I acted on the Bridge.” He paused and looked back up at her. “No excuse.” His voice regained some of its normal assurance as he finished, but his eyes carried an unspoken plea.
The apology took her aback. She did not expect one, and really, one was not needed. They had all been through a lot, sacrificed a lot for this mission, but Grant more than she and Malcolm. It was completely understandable that he would feel anger if it turned out that his sacrifice, so large as it had been, was for nothing.
“Thank you,” Jo said. “I can’t begin to know how you are feeling…”
“I said, there’s no excuse.”
Jo paused, considering. “That’s true. But there is an explanation, and a valid one.”
Grant’s eyes narrowed as he considered her words, then he nodded quickly.
“I trust nothing like this will happen again.” Jo used her Captain-Means-Business voice. Sometimes it helped to assume an authoritative stance, and Grant seemed to be the sort who wanted and needed a hierarchy to belong to.
He nodded again, more deeply. “No, it won’t.”
Jo held his gaze for a long moment then nodded. “Very well. See that it doesn’t.”
Grant turned away then, and walked back toward Section B, where Hydroponics was located. He almost wore a smile as he left.
* * * * *
After a short nap, Jo went back on to the bridge and strapped into the pilot’s station. The straps were not necessary, but they saved having to constantly adjust herself in the zero-g environment. After a while sitting there staring at the camera display of their destination, she frowned. There was something odd, but she could not put her finger on what. The little voice in the back of her head quipped that the entire situation was odd, but she paid it no heed. Something was missing from the picture. Something that should be there.
She frowned and called up the spectrographic analysis display. The moon’s atmospheric conditions were what she expected from her last encounter with the aliens: primarily Nitrogen and Oxygen, with CO2 and Helium levels that were significantly higher than Earth’s. That was not it.
Maybe it was just the anticipation of the upcoming meeting, and of her relative inaction now, after so much running around before. Preparations for the meeting were made as well as they could be, and she found she was more hindrance than help down in Hydroponics. Ripping a bunch of dead, dying, or decayed plant matter out of the bins and preparing them for new seedlings was not something she was particularly good at. And besides, someone had to monitor their approach to the moon.
It nagged at her for almost an hour before she hit upon it. It was so obvious she was surprised she had not noticed it before: the silence. The entire time they drew nearer to the system, and to the moon, Agrippa’s communications equipment had not picked up a single signal, in any frequency range, except normal background static. That was unheard-of, in Jo’s experience. The channels should have been full of navigational beacons, traffic control, entertainment networks…the list went on. But here there was nothing.
The aliens sure did not seem to be talking with each other.
Jo frowned and looked back at the moon, now fully visible on the gas giant’s day side. The mass of vessels docking and getting underway, transiting the area, or just sitting in a stationary orbit, was no less than it had been the first time she saw it. But if that was so, why no radio chatter? Surely an operation as complex as that ring would require an extensive communications network to avoid conflicts and ensure things ran smoothly.
Jo checked the receivers again, then ran the self-diagnostic utility. Everything was in good working order; there was simply nothing to receive. It was very puzzling. Perhaps they did not use radio. But if not radio, what?
That was a rabbit hole with no end, and pointless. Even if the aliens did not use radio channels to communicate, they must surely be able to receive them. It was her broadcast from Pericles to the crippled ship that initiated their first meeting, after all.
Jo glanced at the navigation display: about 10 light-hours from the planet. They should arrive in about a day. Politeness dictated announcing their arrival beforehand, and Jo figured this was as good a time as any. She called up the communications controls again. Now, what did the first contact procedure for starliners say about the communications system? Although it had been years since she accessed the contact protocols aboard Pericles, Jo remembered the keystrokes as though it had happened yesterday. She tapped them in, hoping the algorithms had not been changed.
Her hope was rewarded as the screen shifted to a yellow-bordered command access display. The controls were exactly as Jo remembered from the encounter aboard Pericles. She pointed the directional antennas at the planet then, a couple taps later, the ship’s antenna status indications lit up across all bands.
If the aliens had not detected Agrippa already, they would in a few hours. Now there was little to do but wait.
* * * * *
The beeping of the proximity alarm roused Jo from a fitful sleep. She was still on the bridge, at the pilot’s station. She must have dozed off without realizing it. She began cursing herself for allowing that to happen before experience made her stop. Sleep was a weapon, and a necessity. It would be far worse to push herself past endurance than to grab a little shuteye when opportunity presented itself.
Jo shook her head and, wiping sleep from her eyes, tapped the control pad to wake up the sensor display. Even though she knew intellectually what was out there, she gasped and felt a surge of adrenalin when she saw it on the display. Two crescent-shaped off-white ships just like the one she saw earlier were paralleling her course, one on either side of Agrippa, at a distance of ten kilometers.
It looked as though her message had been received.
* * * * *
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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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.
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.
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.
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.
* * * * *
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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.
* * * * *
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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.
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.”
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.
* * * * *
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.
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.
“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.
* * * * *
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.
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.”
“What’s the problem?” Malcolm asked.
Jo tried again. Maybe she had mis-typed.
“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 missed Tuesday again. I think I sense a trend. *sigh*
Anyway, before we get to today’s chapter, a little bit of housekeeping. I have the finalized cover art for my new novel, Tollard’s Peak (Glimmer Vale Chronicles #3), which is scheduled for release at the end of the month. I’m going to do a cover reveal tomorrow evening at 1800 my time (Pacific time zone in case you’re wondering). The cover rocks pretty hard, so I think you’ll dig it. So swing by tomorrow night to check it out.
Ok, with that out of the way let’s get to the next chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. Remember, if you enjoy this chapter you can pick up the full book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.
Malcolm spun around, bringing his rifle to bear on Agent Moore, but held up short as she made a little tsking sound and flexed her fingers on the grip of her weapon. Her index finger slipped into the trigger guard; she was ready to shoot.
“Chandini would rather I take you two alive,” she said, “but if you prefer otherwise…”
Another flash-bang detonated off to the right. Jo hoped that meant Grant was gaining ground against his group of troops, but right then that was the least of her concerns.
“You know,” Moore said, “I thought Chandini had lost it when she deployed us up here. There was no way you would be stupid enough to show your face.” She pursed her lips and gave a little shake of her head. “Guess I was wrong.”
“Put down the gun, Jaqueline,” Jo said in her vintage Cool Under Pressure Captain voice.
Moore snorted. “Not going to happen. You’re caught; might as well admit it to yourselves now.” Her lips twisted into a sneer. “So close, and yet so far.”
Jo glanced toward Malcolm. He had lowered the barrel of his rifle so it aimed at the floor near Agent Moore’s feet. Probably did not want to give her a reason to shoot; not a bad plan, considering there was no way she would miss at this range. All the same, it would have been nice if he were a bit more ready, just in case. She drew a deep breath and looked Agent Moore directly in the eye.
“Neither Malcolm nor I want to hurt you.” The sneer returned again; she, at least could not hurt Agent Moore, and they both knew it. Jo tried another tack. “Do you even know why you’re here?”
Agent Moore’s eyebrow quirked upward. “I’m apprehending fugitives who – “ Another burst of rifle fire from Thomas’ direction, too many bursts to have just come from him, interrupted her. The multitude of shots made her lips turn upward into a small smile; her people were winning, and she knew it. She continued, “ – who are attempting make a getaway after having stolen government property. Not to mention having disclosed classified material, evaded arrest, and assaulted a number of Federal officers.” Again with the tsking sound. “You two are going away for a very long time.” Her eyes flicked toward Malcolm. “Put down the rifle, Ngubwe, before you make me nervous.”
Malcolm made no move to comply, bless him, but his rifle barrel did lower a few centimeters. His scowl would have turned Medusa to stone, but it did not phase Agent Moore in the least.
Jo shook her head. “So you really don’t know.” Typical, and not unexpected. Agent Moore was a worker bee. She did not need to know what was going on, not in detail. She just needed to know enough to help her catch her query. And to not ask questions beyond that.
“We encountered aliens, when we were out on Pericles.”
Surprise, followed by confusion and irritation, flashed across Agent Moore’s face. And was that perhaps a bit of wonder, quickly suppressed?
More gunfire, this time in Grant’s direction. It was much closer now.
“They were stranded, dying. They gave us their eggs – their babies – and asked us to return them home. We turned them over to the NSA when we returned, along with the tech they gave us in payment. And do you know what Chandini did?”
“Shut up,” Agent Moore said through clenched teeth. She flexed her fingers on the grip of her gun again. “Turn around and get down on your knees.”
Jo did not move; she kept staring straight at Agent Moore’s eyes. She had flinched a little bit at the word babies. “Chandini sent them to that lab in Australia, the one we raided the other day. They took those eggs and cut them open. Experimented on the alien babies inside and discarded them like so much rubbish.” Again, the slightest of flinches. Jo took a small step forward. “Do you have any children, Jaqueline?”
Agent Moore retreated in time with Jo’s advance. “Get down on your knees. Now!”
She had flinched again, even more noticeably, and her tone was suddenly less certain than it had been. So, she was a mother; rather surprising, actually. Not that she had attracted a mate, but that she had chosen to have a child. She seemed far too focused, too ruthlessly intense about her work, to have that side to her. But then, people had many layers about them, apparently even government stooges.
Jo pressed on, advancing once again. “We’re not stealing from the government, Jaqueline. We’re rescuing the surviving babies. Bringing them home.” Time to play the trump card. “What would you want most if your child was trapped and in danger? Wouldn’t you want someone to help, if she could? Wouldn’t you do anything to rescue him?”
Agent Moore’s hand trembled. “Her,” she said softly.
Jo advanced again; she was almost within arm’s reach. “If someone hurt your little girl, if he killed her and tried to claim it was in the name of science, what would you do to that person when you found out?”
Agent Moore’s frown deepened. Almost too softly to hear, she murmured, “I’d kill him.”
“So you see,” Jo said, “we’re not just trying to save these babies. We’re trying to save the rest of us as well.”
For a second, Jo thought she had gotten through, that Agent Moore would understand and let them past.
And then that second passed.
Agent Moore shook her head. “No,” she said. And then, more strongly, she added, “No. You’ve broken the law. Even if you think you’re doing the right thing, there are ways to go about it that don’t involve doing what you’ve done.” She drew in a breath and squared her jaw, returning Jo’s stare with a determined look of her own. “Get down on your knees now, or I’ll put you down.” She glanced aside, toward Malcolm. “Both of you -“
Jo did not let her finish the order. No sooner had Agent Moore’s eyes left her than Jo bounded forward and to her right, removing her head from the path of the pistol’s barrel and aiming a roundhouse kick at Agent Moore’s navel.
Agent Moore’s eyes flashed in surprise and she darted away. She was quick, very quick. But not quick enough. She had only just begun to move when Jo’s boot struck her. She bent over double and stumbled backward from the force of the kick, couching as the breath left her lungs.
She still clutched her pistol, though.
“Malcolm, get the loader,” Jo ordered as she stepped forward and grabbed at the gun in Agent Moore’s hands.
From the corner of her eye, Jo could see Malcolm hesitate for a second, clearly torn between helping her and getting their cargo to the ship. That second quickly passed and he shouldered his rifle and hauled himself up into the loader’s control chair.
More rifle fire, followed by a loud cry of pain, Jo could not tell from where exactly, covered the sound of the loader’s motor shifting into drive. Not that Jo had the time to pay attention to it.
Stunned as Agent Moore was, she was obviously well-trained and in control of herself. The moment Jo’s hand touched the pistol, she squirmed and twisted, almost succeeding in evading Jo’s grab. Only getting her second hand down around Agent Moore’s wrist prevented it; as it was, the pistol came perilously close to pointing at Jo’s chest before she managed to force it away.
And not a moment too soon. The pistol barked, and superheated plasma lanced out, the heat of its passage charring Jo’s fatigues and causing her to grit her teeth in pain as her skin burned along her lower left ribs, and impacted with the ceiling.
Jo twisted her hips, using the force of her momentum to pull Agent Moore off her feet and send her sprawling to the floor off to Jo’s side. The impact jarred the pistol loose; for a moment Jo had a hold of it, but only for a moment. Then she lost her grip and the weapon dropped away and skittered across the floor toward Agrippa’s airlock.
Agent Moore noticed and tried to push herself up onto her knees, to go after it. Jo’s boot in the small of her back stopped that quickly enough.
Jo pressed down, forcing the other woman to the floor, and pulled her own pistol from its holster on her hip. “Don’t move, Jaqueline.”
Beneath her, Agent Moore closed her eyes. “Just do it.”
Jo took a second to glance behind her and saw the loader still at the mouth of the tunnel, motionless. Where – ?
And then she saw Malcolm, standing beside the loader with his arm wrapped around Grant. The fighting man was bleeding from a cut on his temple and his left sleeve was torn away, revealing a painful-looking burn that ran down most of his upper arm. He moved stiffly on his right leg, as though he was having troubling bending it.
Where was Thomas?
Malcolm met her eyes and must have seen the question there. He shook his head, his face grim.
Sorrow, and cold anger, welled up with Jo; she could see the same thing, magnified a thousandfold, in Grant’s eyes beneath the physical pain. Jo’s heart went out to him. She had never had a blood brother, but she had a large extended family among her fellow starfarers. She knew how it was to lose a loved one. Her eyes flickered toward Malcolm again, and she recalled the agony when he had died, those months ago. Except that he had not really died. Thomas would not come back from the dead, like Malcolm had.
But there was no time to dwell on that now. “Move it,” Jo said in as commanding a tone as she could muster – and that was quite commanding, all things considered.
She turned back to Agent Moore and pressed her pistol to the back of the woman’s head. Then she reached down with her left hand and felt along her waist until…there. Handcuffs. Never leave home without them. A couple seconds later, Jo had Agent Moore’s hands cuffed behind her back, and she shoved her against the wall so she would be out of the way.
Then Jo hurried back to the loader, and her two comrades. From the corner of her eye, she saw disbelief on Agent Moore’s face.
* * * * *