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.
* * * * *
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