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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