The Pericles Conspiracy. Chapter 47. Hooyah. 🙂
Carlton parked the company car in its spot outside the hangar and turned off the engine. But instead of getting out, he sat there, staring at the building. He was not sure how long he sat there – he normally kept the chronometer function of his database implant turned off because he was still not used to the text perpetually hovering there in his vision – and he did not care.
He had done his best to treat this morning like any other. He got up at the usual time, went for his morning jog, had a hearty breakfast, and drove leisurely back to the airfield. Just as he would – and as he always had – during any training flight. But try though he might, the butterflies were now threatening to burst out of his stomach like the alien creature in that ancient screen play a buddy of his found, way back when.
This was no ordinary day. No amount of pretending would make it that way, either.
Up until now, it had been all fun and games. Sure, he had pulled a fast one on the company. But all that had really done was net him a few extra hours in the cockpit. Hell, that shell company – it could have been real for all Carlton knew – had even paid for the fake trial student’s lessons, so it’s not like he had cost Delta any money.
Now, though. Now the shit got real. If he got on that craft and piloted it up to Gagarin with Jo and her friends onboard, that was it. Yeah, he had a cover story built into the plan. Jo had made sure of that. But even he could see it was flimsy. The NSA would see right through it.
But would they be able to prove it?
Carlton snorted at his own thought. The NSA did not need proof. Not for something like this. There would be no arrest. No trial. That would blow the whistle on the whole thing. Most likely, he would just vanish. And maybe Alison and the boys as well.
Right then, Carlton almost started the car back up with the intention of going to the admin building and blowing the whistle on the whole thing himself. Let Jo and Malcolm fry, and to hell with those alien eggs; they were not his problem. But the image of Alison’s face, the disapproval and contempt in her eyes when she learned what he had done – and she would – gave him pause. He had given his word to Jo. To Alison. And damnit all, they were both right. This needed to be done.
Carlton just hated being the one to do it.
Some time later, he inhaled deeply and flung the car door open, then stepped out. It was time to get it done.
* * * * *
The preflight check of the craft’s exterior was routine. The engine outlets, vertical stabilizers, ailerons and flaps on the wings, orbital maneuvering jets, and docking apparatus were all in good shape, as expected. That much was good. Jo and her pals had at least not made a mess.
Carlton smirked slightly and keyed open the crew access hatch, then waited while it opened and the boarding ladder folded out, smooth as silk. Then he climbed up and began his check of the interior.
As normal, he gave a quick sweep of the small passenger compartment – empty, as to be expected on this flight – and then proceeded to the cockpit. Settling down into the left seat, he inserted his Delta identicard and tapped the main console, and the cockpit displays flashed to life. A quick scan showed all was as he had left it the previous night. Fuel state was sufficient to get back to Luna with more than the required fuel reserve, let alone to Gagarin, in accordance with his flight plan.
Satisfied, Carlton tapped the console and called up the engine start procedure. He was halfway through it when he felt a hard piece of metal press against his right temple.
“Do exactly as I say,” Jo said, her voice calm and cold. Almost as cold as the metal of the plasma pistol she held to his head, but then Carlton had never particularly liked guns.
* * * * *
The atmosphere outside the cockpit windows changed quickly from a normal sky blue, to navy blue, and then to black as the craft propelled itself upward into orbit. Carlton focused on that, and on his instruments, and tried to ignore the fact that Jo had not taken the pistol off of him since she first joined him in the cockpit. Oh, she had taken it away from his temple – she had to so he could don his headset and talk to flight control – and settled down into the copilot’s seat. But she had kept the gun leveled on him the whole time.
She had to, of course. Every aspect of the flight was recorded, from power-up to power-down, by recorders within the craft’s systems and by audio and visual recorders in the cockpit and passenger compartments. It would not do to make it look like Carlton was anything but her hostage, doing her bidding against his will, or he would be screwed in the post-incident investigation. And there would surely be one. Concealing the fact that she had gotten up to Gagarin with her prize in his craft would be nigh on impossible. At least this way allowed a slim chance that he would not share in the blame.
Yeah right. And pigs could launch themselves into orbit.
“You’re not going to get away with this, you know that,” Carlton said, trying his best to look and sound nervous but not out of control. “Security will nab you as soon as we dock.”
“Let me worry about that,” Jo growled, and waggled the gun at him. She was overdoing it a bit.
Carlton rolled his eyes. “Put down the gun, Jo. We both know you’re not going to shoot me.”
She glared at him. “We do? I can fly this crate too, you know.”
He snorted. “When’s the last time you logged an hour in the pilot’s seat? Fifteen years ago?” He glanced sidelong at her. “Longer?”
Jo’s lips compressed into a scowl and she did not respond. She also did not lower the gun.
The console beeped and Carlton glanced down. The display told him what he already knew from the lack of g-forces. Orbital insertion was complete; the main engines were secured and the orbital maneuvering thrusters were powering up. Right on schedule. The familiar feeling of free-fall began to register in the pit of his stomach as the craft coasted along on its low earth orbit trajectory. It was strangely calming, that little bit of queasiness. Carlton had lived with it, off and on, for most of his life. It was like an old friend, in a way.
This was no time to be enjoying zero-g’s though; there was work to do, and a hostage role to play. Carlton tapped in the command to execute the burn that would place them on an intercept trajectory with Gagarin Station and paused, his hand poised over the Execute touch-button. He turned his gaze on Jo again.
“This is nuts, Jo. Think about what you’re doing. I haven’t deviated from my flight plan. There’s no need for anyone to know what’s happened here. Put the gun away and we can forget the whole thing. I’ll figure a way to get you back from Luna quietly. Honest. Mum’s the word.”
“I’m not alone.” Carlton dropped his jaw open, affecting surprise, but Jo spoke again before he could retort. “And even if I was, we both know what you said is not true. You’re supposed to have an under-instruction. Where is he?”
Carlton winced and looked away. “That’s not really a deviation,” he began, but stopped when Jo snorted loudly. Rolling his eyes, Carlton said, “She got space-sick yesterday and bailed.” In spite of his situation, he shook his head and snorted out a half-chuckle. “You believe that? Kid never even bothered to go up once before signing up for orbital flight training. Now she’s out a bunch of credits and I’ve wasted a lot of time.” He sighed. “But that’s why they call them Trial training flights. Separates the serious from the wannabes.” He looked back at Jo and his momentary mirth fled. “Don’t try to deflect the subject. What do you hope to accomplish with this?”
Jo just continued to stare at him. She made a little gesture with her gun toward the Execute touch-button.
Carlton sighed and hit it. The console beeped in response and the orbital maneuvering thrusters fired for a long several seconds before cutting out. On the navigation display screen, the craft’s orbital track updated to reflect its new heading toward Gagarin. Estimated Time of Arrival, fifty minutes.
It was going to be a long flight.
* * * * *
Every time he made an approach to Gagarin, or any of the other geosynchronous space docks, Carlton found himself unable to not stare in awe at the sheer size and complexity of the thing.
A starliner was one thing. Pericles was about two and a half kilometers long, and she was an older model, smaller than the new Gorshkov class that started rolling off the lines while he and Alison were on Gliese last. But, big as the starliners were, the station dwarfed them. Large enough to dock a dozen starliners at once, with room left over for smaller private transports aplenty and a special section for military vessels, the station was probably forty or fifty kilometers long. The thing could easily be mistaken for a small moon, if one was not looking too carefully.
A small and oddly-shaped moon, though.
The main living and administrative spaces were a series of six stacked rings, several kilometers in diameter and all connected to a central hub by a like number of support struts that also served as passageways. Each pair of rings rotated slowly in opposite directions to generate g’s within the ring and null out the station’s net angular momentum, just like the rings on a starliner. From the rings, the hub stretched out in both directions, one side pointing right at Earth, the other out into space. The Earth-side of the hub contained the station’s reactor complex and planetary communications gear. The other side contained the docking facilities, and was considerably larger.
The mooring apparatus was arranged radially, with four starliner-sized ships able to dock on each level. The arrangement was ingenious: great clamps with four passages that locked into the ships from the bow and stern, linking up with each of the four airlocks in the starliners’ rings. The clamps themselves were mounted on drives that turned them, and the rings they were attached to, in order to generate g’s within the ships and the transition area on the station. This made loading and unloading cargo and personnel significantly easier.
Looking up as they approached, Carlton could make out a number of starliners moored there. The sight made him heartsick for a moment. He loved his life, and his job planetside, but there was something about just blasting away to see what lay out there, among the stars…
What the hell are you thinking?
Carlton glanced over to the copilot’s seat, where Jo sat. She was no longer watching his every move, but she still held the pistol pointed squarely at him. She was good at this; he almost forgot for a moment that it was all just an act.
At least for her part. The closer they actually came to Gagarin, though, the more it felt like he really was the prisoner, the hostage. He had been roped into this by her. By Alison. And they did have a point. But damnit, it was so much to risk. After this, he may as well dream of flying using his own two arms as ever think seriously about getting back aboard a starliner. Or doing anything at all that did not involve the inside of a prison cell, if he was lucky.
You gave your word.
And that was why he had even blasted off with Jo aboard. But now, just moments away from the intercept point where Station control would take over and guide the craft into its designated docking bay, that suddenly did not seem like a good enough reason.
Alison is thinking with her heart. I need to think with my head. For both of us.
He hated thinking what he was thinking. But it was the only thing that made sense.
Carlton glanced at Jo again. She was looking upwards and to the right. He followed her gaze and saw a lone starliner docked on level three of the mooring rings. Agrippa, he was sure.
She was distracted. It was now or never.
The craft’s transponder controls were to his left, from Jo’s perspective behind the control stick. Slowly, so as to not draw her attention with an obvious movement, he moved his hand from the stick to the controls. Carlton swallowed, hesitated. Either way, there was no going back after this. Drawing in a quick breath, he changed the code entered into the transponder from 2570, which was what traffic control had assigned him, to 7500.
His craft had officially been hijacked.
* * * * *
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