Posted by: Michael Kingswood | October 10, 2014

Deployment Goals

A couple weeks back, I mentioned I was going on deployment, and that I’d talk more about that later.  Well, now is later.  :P  I am no longer in San Diego.  Shoot, I haven’t been in San Diego for two weeks.

As those of you who have read the “About Michael” tab above, or who have gotten to know me through other means, know, I am an active duty officer in the US Navy.  About four months ago, word came down about a need for a guy to fill a job in a task force in the Westpac.  Now, as a submarine officer I’ve worked with SOF (Special Operations Forces; spoken SEALs) guys before.  I recall they were a lot of fun, and this particular job involves doing things that support them.  Since that sounded wicked cool, and since it’s been a while since I’ve been on a real deployment, and since the Admiral at home keeps saying she doesn’t feel like a real Navy wife because we haven’t done a deployment since we’ve been married, I raised my hand and said, “I’ll go!”

And they looked at the list of volunteers and said, “Sure, come on over.”

Consequently, the Admiral at home said, “Cool, get the f*(k out of here, you slacker.”

So two weeks ago, I left San Diego.

First stop was Hawaii, for a week.  Good thing about that was 1) it’s Hawaii and 2) I had enough frequent flyer miles on Southwest to fly the Admiral’s parents out to San Diego (so they could watch the kids) and enough frequent flyers miles on American (from flying to Japan all the time for the Navy) to fly her to Hawaii with me.  :)  She’s been wanting to go to Hawaii for a while; in fact one of our West Coast bucket list items was to get out to the islands again (I say again because my first Navy assignment – before I met her – after my initial training was on a submarine based out of Pearl Harbor.).

Promise fulfilled!   :)

It was a great week.  For reference, here’s the view from one of my favorite bars on Oahu, Duke’s.

IMG_3442

Doesn’t suck.   :)

I checked in at the command on Oahu and did some in-briefing stuff, but not too much.  The rest of the time, I showed the Admiral around the island, and a good time was had by all.  But alas, as with all things, that good time came to an end, and she flew home while I flew to Guam, where I currently am.

Again for reference, this is the view out of my hotel room window.

IMG_3527

Also doesn’t suck.  :)

I’ve been here for a week, doing some training with the unit here on Guam, learning things I need to know so I can do my job properly when I get out west.  Some parts have been pretty grueling, though.  For instance, the other day I had to endure small boat handling training.

Small Boats

IMG_3568

It truly sucked, as you can see.  :)

But that’s all done now (thank God! <snark>) and pretty soon I’m going to push further west to do things in support of operations.  I hope that’s vague enough for you, because that’s all you’re going to get from me about that.  ;P

But I know what you’re thinking.  What does that have to do with writing, Kingswood?

Not a damn thing, except for this.  I’ll be deployed on a ship out west for six months, not to exceed 180 days.  I’ll have operations to do, admin to keep track of, and PT to exercise.  But I’ll also have time to do other things.  So I figured I’d set some writing goals for my time out there.

Now, let’s be honest.  I set goals for 2014 way back in January.  I haven’t talked much about them in a while.  That’s because I’ve totally screwed the pooch this year.  Completely.  I know, I know.  I suck at life, I should be drawn and quartered, blah blah blah.  *shrug* Whatever.  I just didn’t git ‘r done. No big deal.  But it seems to me this is the prime time to reset and refocus so I can get fully back into the writing game.

So here’s the deal.  180 days.  2,000 words/day (that’s about 1.33 hrs/day at my typical writing speed).  360,000 words.  That’ll do two things: get me back into the rhythm of writing consistently, which I haven’t done lately, and get me over the mythical 1,000,000 word mark.

So that’s the goal.

To break it down, that comes out to about 12,800 words/week if you count all the weeks between now and my expected return date.  Seems totally doable.

So what projects shall I work on?

First, I’m going to finish the novelette I’ve been (ridiculously slowly) chugging away on since…June?…that I intend to submit to Writers of the Future.  Then, back to novels.  The novel goals for this deployment:

1) Finish Dawn of Enlightenment 2

2) Finish Glimmer Vale 4

3) Get going on The Penitent – that’s a project I got inspired to do about 3 years ago, got about 8,000 words written on, and have since done nothing with.  It’ll be wicked awesome if I ever hunker down and finish it.  Looks like now’s the time.

4) If there’s time (depending on how big The Penitent gets…I think it’ll be pretty big) get started on and/or finish Glimmer Vale 5

And of course, I will get back into the habit of “penning” short stories and;or novelettes for Wotf and general dissemination.

I also have some non-writing goals

1) Get below 200 lbs, as talked about before

2) Work up to doing 20 pull-ups in a row

3) Finish Insanity.  This will take a reset, because between drinking all the time on Oahu with the Admiral last week, more traveling between then and here, generally screwing off here, and more travel to come between here and Westpac to come, I’ve not kept up with Insanity well.  In fact, I got one day done last week.  In response, this week I decided to re-do Week 7.  And got three days done.  So, next week I’m going to re-do Week 7 again, and proceed on to the finish from there.  Then, I think I’ll go back to the Week 5 recovery week and then re-do month 2 again, because consistency and continual improvement.  And masochism.  Or something.  ;)  After that, the Admiral suggested I mail her back the Insanity discs so she can to them, and she’ll mail me the P90X discs.  I’m down, but we’ll see how that works out.  Not sure how long it’ll take mail to get between here and there on a routine basis.

So that’s the deal.  I’ve set up my usual project and goal-tracking spreadsheets to monitor my progress.  Time to make a go of it.  Who wants to back me up, nag me on, and keep me honest about it?

Wish me luck!

Posted by: Michael Kingswood | October 8, 2014

Star Trek: Axanar

About a month ago, I was on Facebook (Yeah, yeah….I know) and I saw a post, I think from George Takei, linking to a Kickstarter for a Star Trek movie.  I was like, “Star Trek?  In Kickstarter?  I HAVE to check that out.”

That’s how I discovered Star Trek: Axanar.

When I saw the video that was posted on the kickstarter page, I was floored.  This is FREAKING AWESOME!

See what I mean?

Of course, that left me wondering.  Why was it up on Kickstarter?  Paramount/CBS had been producing Star Trek movies for a while, and they’d been doing well.  Why go to Kickstarter?  Was it sort of like the Veronica Mars thing, where the creators wanted to make a movie but the studio wasn’t sure and said if they got enough movie from fans the studio would back it?  And then the Veronica Mars fans completely CRUSHED the studio’s requirement?  But that didn’t make any sense at all.  Why would Paramount need to do that?  They have confidence in Star Trek, obviously.

Then I scrolled down the Kickstarter page and saw the was a freaking fan film!

Now, I’ve known for a while that fans have been making their own Star Trek episodes, even entire series, and putting them out on the web.  As a life-long Star Trek fan, I’ve checked in on them from time to time.  But I’ve never really taken a shine to them.  Yeah they’re cool, but…  I dunno, I guess partially I was busy and had a lot of other things that caught my attention.  But mostly those fan things did not.

But…Axanar…

Come to find out, Alec and Christian, the guys behind this, ran a previous Kickstarter to get funds to make the Prelude (the video posted above, the one that’s on the main Axanar Kickstarter page).  They asked for $10k and raised $100k.  The prelude video cost them about $75k to make.

Yes, that AMAZINGLY AWESOME totally professional-looking, with WICKED COOL special effect sequences, short film cost only $75k.  Holy shitballs, Batman!  And look who’s in it: Richard Hatch, of Galactica fame, Tony Todd, the rest.  Turns out Alec and Christian have been working in Hollywood for a while, and they got other top-shelf people working on it, too: their makeup guy won an Academy award!

So holy smokes, if these guys could do that.  On their own.  For that little money…

I totally had to back that Kickstarter.

But alas, I couldn’t.  Because it had already finished.

They asked for $100k, so they could book a sound stage and get started on pre-production, with the notion that they would do more Kickstarters to get the rest as they showed they were making progress.  They got over $600k (which is about what they estimated it would cost to make the entire thing)!

And I couldn’t donate!  ARRRRRGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!

But wait!  Turns out I could!  On their webpage, they have a donate button, and if you donate there you get the same rewards as if you’d backed the Kickstarter to begin with!  Sweet!  I’m there!

And so I am.

Why do I bring this up?  Well, obviously because I think it’s awesome.  And because I think if any of you folks out there are like me and love Star Trek (or even just like it….or think it doesn’t suck), or if you just appreciate what they did on that prelude movie, you totally should go and donate some cash.  With all the extra money they’ve gotten they’re ramping up their plans for the film (which is now in pre-production for a scheduled 2015 release), and obviously the more $ they get the more cool it will be.

But the best part?  The freaking studio’s not involved.  Dude, this is true indie film-making.  Yeah, they have to be careful not to actually use any CBS-owned IP so they don’t get in trouble, and from all appearances they are.  But how cool is this, that people who love a thing can just decide to make a movie about it, and that they can raise the money from fans so they can make it happen (and really quickly too)?  I think it’s awesome, which is why I’m backing it and why you should too.

If I were a CBS studio exec, I would totally be calling these two guys to make Axanar a fully-licensed piece of work.  But I’m not.  And I guess I’m glad I’m not, because just as going with a big publisher can more often than not be a really bad move for a writer these days, I wonder if going with the studio wouldn’t be a bad call for Alec and Christian, too.  It might end up ruining the entire thing.  Maybe?

Regardless, CBS isn’t involved, so it’s moot.  And the project’s awesome.

Go give money!

Now!

Posted by: Michael Kingswood | September 23, 2014

Max Interval Destruction

It’s Week 6 of Insanity, which means it’s time for another fit test.  Behold, the results:

Insanity Fit Test 9-22-14Pretty good.  Making progress still.  I’m pleased.  :)

However, after the fit test, the workout had to go on, and here’s where it gets painful.  Going into it, I heard that the Insanity world totally changes in Week 6.  What had become a difficult workout just gets taken to a whole new level.  And I believed it, because that just makes sense to do.  All the same, I wasn’t quite ready for the reality of it.

Put it this way.  By the end of Week 4, I won’t say the workouts had become easy, because they hadn’t.  But I had definitely become used to them.  I knew what to expect, where the real ball-buster parts were, and I’d gone through all of the various workouts enough so that I was comfortable with them.  And then last week, the Recovery Week, the workouts pulled back a step or so in intensity, which made me even more confident.

Tonight was Max Interval Circuit.  The first thing that stood out was its length – a full hour, as opposed to 37 minutes for its equivalent in the first month.  Add to that the fact that the Fit Test took 25 minutes, and I was already fairly tired at the beginning.  Not to mention by the middle.  Nkechi Kwenu, who I mentioned before is my favorite of the people who documented their Insanity experiences on YouTube, said at the end of this day’s workout, “Shaun T is a murderer.”  I’m not going to go that far.  But it was pretty intensely challenging.

Great fun!

This next month is going to be pretty interesting, looks like.  I’m looking forward to it.  :)

 

Posted by: Michael Kingswood | September 2, 2014

Fit Test

Two weeks into this Insanity bit, and tonight’s task was taking the program’s fit test for the second time.  Now, fitness tests are nothing new for me; I have to take one every six months in the Navy.  But let’s face it, the Navy PRT is pretty easy.  2 minutes of sit-ups, 2 minutes of pushups, and a 1.5 mile run.  You would have to TRY to not pass it.  But yet, somehow, I know of people who have failed the dang thing, multiple times.

Anyway, rolling into the fit test on Day 1, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I also wasn’t too terribly intimidated by it.  And yeah, the exercises are different than what I’d been used too, but it was not too bad. I had a harder time with some of the exercises than I thought, and an easier time on others.  You know, the usual.

Tonight, knowing what to expect, and with my previous scores in hand, I wasn’t nervous per say but I was mindful of the desire/need to show progress, if only to myself.  So how’d it go, you ask?

Insanity Fit Test 9-1-14

 

So yeah, showing some improvement.  The only areas that didn’t go up were the Globe Jumps and Power Knees.  Globe Jumps – I just hate them and I think they’re a little silly, and I suck at jumping.  But still, that should have gone better.  And the Power Knees…I think the reason for that is I did it with my right leg for the first test, and the left for this one.  Dumb – should have kept it consistent and my left is my weak side.  But it is what it is.

So already seeing some good effects from the program.  Hard to argue with raw numbers, eh?  Although amusingly enough, you wouldn’t know there’d been improvement from looking at the scale.  *shrug*   Oh well, no doubt that will come.

Ok, time to hit the rack.

Posted by: Michael Kingswood | August 27, 2014

Too. Much. PT.

As I stated before, I am totally ramping up the amount of PT I’m doing, because Hooyah.  But even considering that, the last few days have been…strenuous.

A little background.

On Saturday, we decided to splurge and order out for dinner (we don’t do that very much – budget, dude.  Budget.).  We had some Olive Garden gift cards, so what the heck right?  ;)  So I roll on out to pick up the yummy vittles, and on the way to the restaurant, I came down HARD on a dip in the road that I didn’t see coming until it was too late.  Didn’t think much of it though, because these things happen.

Fast forward to Monday morning.  The car starts up just fine, but will not shift out of park.

Crap.

So I rode my bicycle to work.  It’s 23.6 miles each way.  I’ve done it before; in fact many weeks I’ll ride to and from at least once.  But typically I’ll drive in one morning with my bike on the rack, ride home in the afternoon, then ride back to work the next morning and drive home.  Used to be, when I lived closer to work, I’d ride my bike there every day.  Not so much these days.

Anyway, you can do the math – I cranked out 47 miles on the bike on Monday.  Then still had to do Insanity Monday evening.  It was very tempting not to, but of course I couldn’t skip out.  Because what am I, a slacker?

Yesterday, I drove the Admiral’s minivan to work because she had a light day, and I had to pick my Mom up from the airport on the way home and that would be tough to do on my bicycle.  :P  I was freaking tired last night, and the hustle and bustle around the house didn’t really die down until about 2245, but hang it all I did my Insanity.  Last night was Pure Cardio; that one’s a grinder, too.

Today, I rode my bicycle in to work again, and I’ll ride it home.  So another 47 mile day.  And no, I’m not going to skip tonight.  Probably going to do the same tomorrow.  Thankfully, Friday is a day off at work, so I’ll get a little break there.

Long story short, I’m getting a metric butt-ton of PT this week.  95 Weightwatchers activity points worth so far, and it’s only Wednesday (by way of comparison, I’m allocated 45 points of food a day, and last week between Insanity, Pull-ups, and running a few times I only generated 73 activity points).  That’s pretty awesome.  Feels good.  :)

I know what you’re thinking, though.  Kingswood, what’s up with your car?

Well…  I didn’t anything done with it until this morning.  I figured it was a transmission problem or maybe an interlock sensor issue (you know the brake-transmission interlock; if the brake ain’t depressed the gears won’t shift.  If the brake sensor dies…).  Now, the car’s 10 years old, but I have an extended power train warrantee that I bought when I purchased the car last year.  Normally, I don’t go for those sorts of things, but I may end up being happy I did this time.  Problem was, I couldn’t find the information the policy until last night, so I only just this morning called USAA to tow the car to a service station.

Interestingly enough, when the tow truck lifted the car up, the driver found a ton of transmission fluid on the street beneath.  Which has me thinking maybe that dip in the road from Saturday has something to do with this.  Which could make it an insurance claim as opposed to a warrantee claim.  So looks like either way I’ll avoid a HUGE financial hit.  It still sucks though.

So that’s the latest around here.  Go buy some books, will ya?

;)

Posted by: Michael Kingswood | August 25, 2014

Moving On Up

This past weekend I experimented with price discounting and promotion again.  Dropped The Pericles Conspiracy down to $0.99 and had a promo through Ereader News Today.  I didn’t put the word out here on on Facebook because I wanted to see what ENT did on its own. 

A picture’s better than words, so…

Pericles 25 Aug 14 Ranking - 0600

 
Look at that!  #1 in Heists for all of Amazon.  :)  Not too shabby.  Haven’t been #1 on a paid list before.

Pericles is $2.99 now.  It’ll go back to it’s normal price in a day or two, depending on what kind of traction it gets – if it starts going like hotcakes now that it’s high on a list, maybe I’ll keep it cheap for a while.  If not…   We’ll see.

Anyway, I’m feeling pretty good about things.  Fun, fun!

Posted by: Michael Kingswood | August 24, 2014

Insanity

Those who know me know I generally keep fairly active.  I do triathlons and running races, train in martial arts, lift weights, things like that.  I also enjoy beer and wine and love good food.  Lots of good food.  Consequently, though I’m in pretty good shape in terms of strength and endurance (my resting heart rate the other day at the doctor’s office was 56), I’ve always had more of a twelve-pack than a six-pack, if you know what I mean.

Hell, in 2008, when I checked off the submarine at the end of my Department Head tour, I had more like a pony keg.  I got a big wakeup call when I transferred to that shore duty, let me tell you.  I had the trifecta of anti-fitness occur, all at once: I went over 30, served as Department Head on a submarine, and got married.  Any one of those three might have been easily overcome, but all together?  *headshake*

November 2008 - Ugh

November 2008 – Ugh

I weighed in at 240 lbs when I checked in to my new command in November of that year, and measured something like 26% body fat.  Unsat.  So I hopped on Weightwatchers, got back into running more, really started hitting the weight room, and by April I’d dropped to 215 and gotten back within the Navy body fat limits.

October 2009, while sailing my sailboat from Annapolis, MD to Charleston, SC

October 2009, while sailing my sailboat from Annapolis, MD to Charleston, SC – much better

At that point, I figured I should keep going, get back below 200 lbs for the first time since 1999.  But I didn’t feel a lot of pressure to do so, so I didn’t.  Subsequently, I transferred to Upstate New York for a couple years, then here to San Diego.  I put some lbs back on (depends on the time of year), but by and large I’ve stayed at the same overall place since 2009.  Except I’m in much better shape now than I was then.  Not as good as when I was  Junior Officer on shore duty (3 marathons in 24 months and five days a week in the dojo will have a good affect on a body), but still pretty darn good.  I beat much younger guys at the Navy PRT (not that this is all that difficult a feat…the PRT ain’t exactly hard).

But, all the same, a few things have been nagging at me.

First, Pull-ups.

I’ve always sucked at pull-ups.  Situps?  I make sit-ups my bitch.  Pushups?  I can crank out a lot.  But Pull-ups… Oy, pull-ups.  Back in 2009, I managed to get to the point where I could do 3-4, but that was the best I’ve ever done with pull-ups.  Well, I guess a month and a half ago, I got to thinking I was sick and tired of sucking at pull-ups, and I found this guy’s website where he described how he made his own pull-up bar using materials from Home Depot.  I thought, “What the hell,” and built one myself the next week, drawing off his plans.

Pull-Up Bar

At the time of it’s completion, I could maybe do 2 pull-ups at once.  But that’s ok.  I decided I’d do 10 sets of 1 every day.  Doing that would inevitably enable me to up my reps, over time.  And sure enough, it worked.  Within a week I was doing sets of two.  Now, I’m doing sets of 3 or 4, depending on the day.  I intend to continue working on them until I’m up to Marine Corps standards (technically I’m past their minimum spec, which if memory serves is three or four pull-ups for the PFA.  Or is it 5?  Regardless, I can do that minimum now.  But they get max points at 20, so that’s what I’m shooting for).  I figure I can be there by the time I get back from deployment in April.

Yes, deployment.  More on that later.

Anyway, I’d been making such good progress on the pull-up front that I got to thinking about the the second thing that keeps irking me: the twelve pack.  And I started thinking about what I’m going to do on deployment.  Obviously I’m going to write a lot.  Read a lot.  Work a lot.  But also work OUT a lot.  And that led to thinking about what manner of workout I wanted to do onboard ship, since i hate – and I meant HATE – treadmills and stationary bikes.

And then I remembered Insanity.

I heard some of the guys at work talking about Insanity and P-90X and the like, but never took part in them.  I had no interest.  But for whatever reason, the middle of last month I got to thinking about it, and I went online.  I found some articles reviewing the Insanity workout, watched some YouTube videos that people made documenting their Insanity experience (he series of videos I enjoyed best was by this lady named Nkechi Kwenu – she’s pretty funny).

And, again, I thought, “What the hell,” and ordered the DVDs.

The Admiral here at home wanted to participate as well, but she had a half-marathon to finish training for and run last weekend, so we didn’t start until this week.

I’m here to tell you, I’ve done some intense workouts over the years.  Conditioning and Sparring at Masters Studios of Self Defense in Charleston (my all-time favorite dojo) kicked my butt thoroughly.  As did each marathon I’ve run, and the Olympic length triathlons.  So I know how to deal with a hard workout.  No lie, Insanity is legit.  A good, hard workout, across the entire body.

It’s hard.  Totally doable, but hard.  And that’s good.

Today (it’s past midnight now but it’s still Saturday night so I’m thinking of today as Saturday even though technically it’s really Sunday) was day 6, and it was a repeat of the circuit workout we did on Tuesday.  Already I can tell it was just a little bit easier than it was just a few days ago.  Easier in that I was able to push a little bit harder before failure, if you know what I mean.

So that’s what I’m up to now.  I’m back on weight watchers, cranking on pull-ups, and working Insanity.  All with the goal of really getting back below 200 lbs by the end of my deployment.  After all, the Admiral at home, post kid #4, has become a PT machine and trimmed down to a size 2, which is smaller than she was when we met in bygone days of yore.  I should probably return the favor.

It’s going to be a lot of fun.  And now that I’ve finished blasting The Pericles Conspiracy at you, I figure I’ll bother you with workout reports for a while.

:)

Hope you don’t mind.

Now, it’s time to hit the rack.  Later.

Posted by: Michael Kingswood | August 23, 2014

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Sixty-Three (aka – The End)

Took long enough, but we’re down to it.  The last chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy.  Whew.  Took long enough, right?  If you’ve liked it, please leave a review on Goodreads or elsewhere.  And, of course, pick up the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwordsGoogle Play, or iTunes.

It’s just $0.99 this weekend, to celebrate.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Sixty-Three

From Out Of The Blue

Ilena Dmitrikov yawned and leaned back in her chair, rubbing at her eyes to ward off sleep.

It had been a long shift, and there were still four hours left to go.  Her brain felt fuzzy and it was all she could do to keep her eyes open.  It was her own damn fault, of course.  She knew better than to stay out late the evening before she had the duty.  But it was Jasmine’s last day aboard the station, and Ilena would never have forgiven herself if she missed the going away party.

And the after party.

Another yawn burst forth and she kicked her chair back from her station.  She needed to stand up.  Move around, get the blood flowing.

Her back, stiff from sitting for so long, protested as she straightened.  Grimacing, she raised her arms up over her head, the loose white fabric of her uniform blouse falling down around her shoulder as she did so, and stretched the way her Yoga instructors taught her.  She went all the way up onto her tip toes, her soft pseudo-leather shoes flexing easily as though part of her skin, and she felt a slight pop from somewhere in the middle of her back.  All at once, the discomfort went away and she was left with only a blissful feeling of relaxation.

Exhaling slowly, she lowered her arms and sunk back down onto the flats of her feet.  Much better.

A sudden sensation, very like someone poking at her with a blunt piece of soft plastic, brought her attention back to her station.

Unless one was logged in, the station did not look like much: just an empty space at the end of a small, oblong room with grey-blue walls and faux-wood paneled floor and ceiling.  But to her eyes, the space was alive with data.  The readouts from every craft in this sector of the outer solar system, the status of every communications relay, every outpost were instantly available to her if she but reached for them.

She sat back down and slid forward, and found herself surrounded by space in all its immensity.  Even just her little portion was awe-inspiring.  As always, it took her a moment to re-acclimate, to force down the mixture of vertigo and exhilarated joy she felt as she floated in the void, observing all that occurred.  Of course, it was just a simulation, but what did it matter?  It still was enough to take one’s breath away.

The moment passed, as it always did, and the tugging at her consciousness drew her attention to the far edge of her assigned sector, to the southeast-by-east edge of the Oort Cloud.  Two objects that were not present before she went through her wake-up routine caught her eye immediately, as much because they were outlined in glimmering silver, a construct of the sim that was designed to draw attention to new contacts, as because they were so much different than anything else flying.

The first was a long cylinder-shaped craft with several great spheres surrounding its after half and what looked like two rings – rings! – About a third of the way from its bow.  The second was larger, off-white, and crescent-shaped.

Ilena frowned.  Where had they come from?

A thought reversed the sim image of the two vessels – they could only be vessels – until they suddenly vanished again.

She blinked, and the sim began playing forward again.

There was a momentary flash of light and then…something happened.  It was like space itself bent and twisted.  Ilena would not have noticed except a star opposite the area where it occurred suddenly became distorted and then vanished.  In its place was only a reddish-yellow circle that hung there for a second or two, doing nothing.  Then, the cylinder-ship shout out of the circle, followed by the crescent, a few seconds later.

The strange circle, or hole, or whatever it was closed abruptly behind them, and space returned to normal.

The sim froze as Ilena realized what she had just seen.  A wormhole.  Hyperspace portal.  Whatever the different theorists called it, it was supposed to be nigh-on impossible to create.  And yet, what else could it have been?

Her earlier fatigue long-since forgotten, Ilena gave quick thought to a report for Headquarters, in Geneva, and reset the sim to current time.

The two objects drifted together, the crescent having taken station off the cylinder’s port side.  The orbital computations took less time than it took to query for them.  They were on an intercept heading for Earth.

The message popped into Ilena’s vision and she checked it over quickly, then with a thought sent it flying.  They were several light hours away.  Conceivably there would be plenty of time for follow-up before the two craft could pose a serious threat, but given what she had just seen there was nothing to be gained from delaying her report for further analysis.

Which did not mean she was not going to investigate further.

The sim zoomed in on the pair of ships and Ilena’s breath caught in her throat.  At the higher magnification, she recognized both instantly.  The cylinder ship was an old Achilles-class starliner.  What the hell was one of those doing flying around?  The last of them were decommissioned over two hundred years ago, when the Higgs-Carpenter drive rendered their plasma-impulse engines and centripetal rings obsolete.

But the other….

For her entire NSA career, Ilena had seen images of that other ship.  Grainy images, by modern standards, shot through old-style telescopic cameras centuries ago.  Images of an alien craft that housed beings with the ability to invade a person’s mind, turn otherwise good and loyal men and women against their own race.  A craft that she and her comrades must constantly guard against.

A craft that now appeared in her sim display.

Ilena swallowed hard against the surge of fear that swept over her.  She had to stay under control.  Record as much as possible.  Any piece of data, no matter how seemingly insignificant, could make the difference between survival and destruction at these beings’ hands.

But she had never thought to really see such a craft.

For a full minute, she just watched the two craft drift in formation, every second bringing them closer to Earth.  She could not think of what to do.  The boogey-man from her earliest training was here.

And she did not know what to do.

Finally, she pulled her attention back and looked to the nearest defense outpost: the Charon battery.  The two craft were almost within range.  Maybe the battery could intervene.

That small action got the rest of her mental gears turning.  She thought out a follow-up message for Earth, including her intentions to intercept with Charon, and sent it, chopping Charon in the transmission.  Then she settled back to wait for a response.  Local time appeared over the two crafts and the battery on Charon when she thought of it, along with the crafts’ time to Closest Point of Approach at Charon.

Ilena frowned.  They would reach CPA in about three hours.  There was no way she would receive a reply from Earth in that time.

It was up to her.

Ilena reached out with her thoughts to the Charon battery, and a heartbeat later she was part of the systems on the icy moon.  The systems came online at her mind’s touch, the weapons began powering up from their long slumber.  Death incarnated into plasma, fusion pulse torpedoes, and less exotic missiles and mass cannons came to train on the patch of space where the approaching crafts would pass.

And then she waited.

Gradually, imperceptibly except for her sim-heightened awareness, the crafts drew closer.  She thought up the countdown timer.  CPA in one hour.

Ilena licked her lips in anticipation.

Then something else tugged on her consciousness.  Something new, and unexpected.  Unexpected because she had not sensed this particular tug in years, since her training back on Titan.

She frowned and cast a thought toward the new stimulus.  The communications window flashed open, familiar and set up just as it always was.  Her frown deepened.  What was it?

And then she saw it.  At the bottom of the display, an old group of frequencies and modulation patterns that went out of use more than a century ago.   She had always wondered why the NSA bothered to include them in its monitoring algorithms anymore, why they had trained her on them.  Looking at the ancient starliner, apparently back from the scrapyard, she suddenly realized exactly why.

The people in charge were expecting an encounter like this.

That spike of fear flooded through her again.  Ilena tried to push it away, to no avail.  She pulled away from Charon – it was set to go and would take care of itself, only needing her input for the final engagement sequence – and shot out through the void toward the pair of ships.  This time she zoomed in as far as she could, until the starliner appeared nearly life-size in front of her.

There, on the port bow.  Markings.  Hard to read in the dim light from the distant sun, despite the ship’s hull illumination lights.  But she managed to see the vessel’s name: Agrippa.

Ilena recoiled, physically and mentally, and almost pushed herself out of the interface station again.

Agrippa.

It could not be!

But then, the other vessel from her training was there, large as life.  Why not the traitorous Agrippa as well?

What else were you expecting?  What else could you expect?

The thoughts were true, but knowing what ship that was and seeing it for true were two different things.  If this was Agrippa….  Was it possible her Captain drove her still, like some ghost ship out of ancient legend?

It was nonsense, of course.  Ghosts did not exist, and people did not live nearly long enough for her Captain to still be aboard.  But if not…who was flying the famous, cursed ship?

Without realizing what she was doing, Ilena returned to the communications controls and keyed the old channels to life.

The sim in front of her flickered, then coalesced into a quadrilateral of static for a brief half-second before resolving into the image of a more than handsome woman of east-asian descent.  Her hair was long, black but heavily streaked with silver, and pulled back from her face into a ponytail.  She wore black fatigues of some kind and sat in a chair facing her transmitting station, no doubt.  Flanking her were two men: one tall and slender, African, with even more grey than she had, the other shorter and more stocky, of central European descent from the looks of him and only a bit of grey at his temples.

Ilena’s heart skipped a beat.  She knew those faces.  The traitors.  On instinct, she moved her thoughts to the Charon battery, but the craft were too far out of range to do any good.

The asian woman smiled ever so slightly before speaking.

“Earth Control, this is Josephine Ishikawa aboard the starliner Agrippa, over.”  Or at least that’s what Ilena thought she said.  Some of Ishikawa’s words were indecipherable, a dialect that Ilena had never heard before.  The sim did its best to fill in the gaps, but it still was difficult to be certain she had heard correctly.

Ilena licked her lips, trying to restore some moisture to her mouth.  What to do?  Before she realized what she was doing, she heard herself say, “This is Sol Approach, Haley sector.”

Ishikawa’s eyebrow quirked upward at the identifier that would be, to her, unfamiliar.  “Haley sector, this is Ishikawa, aboard Agrippa.  Malcolm Ngubwe is here with me.”  The tall African nodded gravely.  “As well as Grant Gilford.”  The European flashed a quick smile that almost looked forced.  “We’ve come home, and we’ve brought some new friends with us.  Request safe passage through the solar system, and permission to approach and dock at Earth.  We have a lot to discuss, and our friends are eager to meet with Earth’s leadership.  They pledge non-aggression for the duration of our stay.”

Ilena found herself unable to put a coherent thought together for some time, let alone respond.  They were really here, the demons and traitors everyone had been warned about.  She should just blast them out of the sky.  Her superiors would advise her to do just that.

And yet, looking at the Ishikawa woman’s eyes, serious but unguarded, and those of her companions, Ilena suddenly found it hard to assign the raving lunatic label to them even though it had been passed down for so many years.

Why not?

She did not know how to answer her own thoughts.  But something told her that this woman and her crew was not an immediate threat.  And besides, there were many more batteries ready and able to unleash death in all its forms the closer to the inner solar system they approached, and they were only two ships.  If they were indeed a threat, it would become plain soon enough, and the batteries and ready warships could take care of it.

Ilena made her decision.  With a thought, she secured the battery at Charon, putting it back into sleep mode.  Then she replied, “Permission granted to transit, Agrippa.  For docking, contact orbital approach control on 327.483, modulation Alpha-six-two.”

Ishikawa’s eyebrows raised and she mouthed the channel identifiers to herself, then glanced at Ngubwe.  He frowned but, after a moment, nodded.  Apparently the ship’s communications array could handle that channel.

Ishikawa returned the nod then faced forward.  “Roger, Haley sector.  Thank you.  Agrippa out.”

The transmission winked out.  Ilena thought up an update to headquarters and sent it.  Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew her lack of action here might incur the wrath of her superiors, but somehow that seemed alright.  She stared for a long time at the old starliner, drifting with its unknowable companion, and some of that fear she had felt before receded, replaced once more by exhilaration.

“Welcome home,” she said, to no one, and to everyone.

*  *  *  *  *

I hope you enjoyed The Pericles Conspiracy.

If you liked it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, SmashwordsGoogle Play, or iTunes.  Thanks!

Posted by: Michael Kingswood | August 20, 2014

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Sixty-Two

Two more chapters to go on The Pericles Conspiracy.  I need to start thinking about what to share with you guys next, I suppose.  More to follow on that.  For now, it’s on to chapter sixty-two.  And don’t forget to pick up the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, Google Play, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Sixty-Two

Reunion

“My God,” Grant breathed, his voice hushed, awed.

He was looking out the port side observation window on the bridge at the alien ship in formation with them, his mouth agape.

And who could blame him?  Not one but two alien starships – or perhaps warships – running in clear view in a tight formation with your own ship was not exactly an everyday sight.  It was one thing to know intellectually what was coming.  It was another thing entirely for it to actually happen, for you to definitively see that not only was there other intelligent life in the galaxy, but it was more advanced than man.

Jo could relate.  Even though it was not her first meeting with these creatures, she still felt a giddy excitement mixed with primal terror, just looking at them.  Of course, even had this been her thousandth meeting with them, she expected her reaction would be the same, considering her mission this time.

“How do we play this?” Malcolm asked.

Jo looked over to where he hovered on the starboard side of the bridge, his arms crossed over his chest in an almost defensive manner and his brow furrowed in thought, or worry.  Again, who could blame him, if it was the latter?

Jo shrugged.  “Same way as on Pericles.  We secure ring rotation and the exterior illumination lights, shine the mooring lights on the airlock we want them to come aboard through, and wait.  Unless you have a better idea?”

Malcolm remained silent for a short while, considering.

Grant spoke before he did.  “If it was me, I would not just come over to an unknown vessel just because they shined a spotlight on their airlock.”

“Why not?  It worked before, and – “

“Before, they were stuck in a lifepod after their ship blew up, right?”

Jo nodded.

“So they had no choice.  These guys,” Grant jerked a thumb at the ship to port, “do.  And they’re probably wondering who or what we are, and what we want.  If we go making sudden moves like running darkened ship, they might take that as showing hostile intent.”

Jo’s blood went cold.  That would be well past bad.  It would not do at all for them to have gone to all the trouble of bringing the eggs back here just to be shot down by the people they meant to deliver the eggs to.  She tried to think of a way around Grant’s logic, but after a moment she realized he was right.  How would she react if one of those alien ships just showed up in the Sol system and started acting strangely?  How would United Earth Military react?

“Good point,” Jo said.  “Do you have a suggestion?”

Grant nodded.  “They obviously received our signal.  Why don’t you play that message you supposedly have in that black flashlight-thing for them over the radio?  That ought to show them we are on the level.  Then we can work out how to bring them aboard, so we can give them their kids back.”

It boggled Jo’s mind how she could miss something so obvious.

Shaking her head in chagrin, she said, “I’ll be right back,” then headed below.

The trip down the lift to Ring A seemed to take forever, though it was only a few minutes.  From there it was a quick jog to the cargo space where they had stowed the incubator and loader.  The black rod the alien Captain gave her onboard Pericles was right where she left it before hitting the cryo-tank: safely enclosed in a small bin, a few spots down from the incubator, that was meant to hold delicate items that needed to be stored separately.

Feeling an almost reverent rush, she lifted the rod out of the bin and stared at it for a moment.  So many monumental things had happened because of the information in this thing, and the precious cargo within the incubator.  It seemed odd that such a small device could do so much.

Malcolm’s voice over the 1MC broke her reverie.  “Get up here, Jo.  I think they’re getting antsy.”

Crap.  Jo hurried from the cargo space, sprinting toward the lift, and the bridge.

*  *  *  *  *

Jo gave Malcolm a hard look.  “We need to talk about your definition of antsy.”

Malcolm shrugged as if to say, “Hey, don’t look at me,” but did not reply.

Rolling her eyes, Jo turned away from him and looked out at the alien ships.

Two kilometers.  They had maneuvered two kilometers closer and then stopped, holding position on both quarters, as before.  They were just drifting along in time with Agrippa, not doing anything.  And he called that acting antsy.

Easy for you to say now.

And that was true.  Had she been up on the bridge when they maneuvered, Jo may have had the same reaction Malcolm did.  Maybe.  But, and she often forgot this, he was an Engineer, not a pilot.  He had little to no experience in the way ships interact and how they maneuver, especially when in close proximity to each other.  And it was not like they were dealing with other humans here.  He could be forgiven for being a little jumpy.

For his part, Grant looked slightly amused, though there was a tightness about his eyes that belied his little grin.  He was more tense than he put on.  Hard to blame him there, either.  Jo felt it too.

“Ok,” she said, and moved past the men toward the pilot’s station, and the communications panel to its right.  “Let’s see how this works.”

A few taps on the display called up the first contact protocol display again.  She paused and glanced back at Malcolm.  He shrugged again, and said, “It’s worth a shot.”

Jo activated the local microphone and looked down at the rod, at the three little buttons inlaid into one side.  The first called up the starmap and the third the technical schematics, their payment.  The second was what she needed now, but for some reason she hesitated to play the message.  It almost felt like a sacred act, doing that.  Like playing the message would consummate everything she had worked for these last weeks.  Last decades.  Better to not listen to that little voice.

Jo shook her head at her silliness and tapped the transmit button, then she pressed the second button on the rod.  The image of the alien Captain’s face appeared in the air, a holographic projection, and began speaking in the aliens’ language of barks, growls, and hisses.  The Captain continued for some time, explaining, Jo hoped, what had happened to their ship and that they had entrusted the eggs to Jo and her crew.

Of course, he could be saying something else entirely.  He could be telling his brethren to kill them and use the starmap to invade Earth, now that humans had been foolish enough to reveal themselves.

Jo forced such thoughts away.  She would not give in to paranoia.  And anyway, it was far too late to do anything to avert that invasion, if such was really the aliens’ intention.  Which it wasn’t.

Lord, let it be so.

*  *  *  *  *

One airlock looks much the same as any other, but this one held particular importance to Jo.  It was here, or at least at the equivalent airlock on Pericles – and they were identical – where she greeted the alien Captain and his crew as they stepped aboard her ship.

And you almost got your throat ripped out.

Jo ground her teeth and tried not to remember that part of the first meeting.  She drew a deep breath and looked at Malcolm.  He floated weightlessly at the airlock control panel, at the ready.

Just as Grant proposed, after playing the message over the radio circuits, he and Malcolm had moved the incubator into position at this airlock.  Then Jo secured ring rotation and all external illumination except for the running lights and anti-collision strobes, and turned the mooring spotlights onto the airlock outer door.  Then she transferred ring rotation and external sensor control to the airlock workstation and hurried to join Malcolm and Grant here.

The aliens had been stoic in their response to the message, in that they did nothing.  At least nothing that Jo could see before she left the bridge.  By the time she joined the men at the airlock, that nothing had changed to…nothing.

Jo was beginning to wonder whether they really had received her transmissions, either of them, when the workstation beeped an alert.  She tapped the screen and the display shifted to the aft upper camera, which was trained on the alien vessel to starboard.  The display showed a small, round object drop from the ventral section of the alien ship and proceed a few hundred meters down then stop completely before advancing at a brisk pace toward Agrippa.

“Looks like they got the message,” Grant said from beside her, a certain satisfaction in his tone.

Jo nodded.  “They’ll be here in a minute.  Take station.”

And so they arrayed themselves, Jo in the center of the room next to the incubator, Malcolm at the airlock controls, and Grant over to the right.  Despite his satisfaction that his suggestion had payed off, Grant looked nervous and downright uncomfortable.

Probably feels naked without a gun.  

Jo smirked inwardly.  Well, maybe not entirely inwardly.  Grant had pressed hard to have at least one of them armed, preferably himself, for this meeting.

“It makes sense,” he said.  “I have the most training.  If we need to defend ourselves – “

Jo had cut him off with a shake of her head and a raised hand.  “If we need to defend ourselves, we’re dead anyway.   Even if we fight the ones in the shuttle off, the ships will just open fire.  I am not going to risk this meeting going wrong.  Not this time.”

Grant hated it, but he was forced to concede to her logic, and acquiesced.

Now, looking at him, so obviously ill at ease, Jo knew she was right not to let him grab a gun.  He just might shoot before thinking.  Not that he had ever even come close to doing that before, but that was just another added risk onto a mission that was risky enough already.

“Everyone ready?” Jo asked, trying to keep her voice calm and in command.  She was actually surprised at how well she accomplished that.

Nods all around.

Jo turned her attention to the workstation display.  Malcolm had called up the airlock’s external camera, and it revealed the alien shuttle on approach.  It was remarkably similar to the lifepod Jo remembered from the first ship, with a number of circular protuberances on various locations and strange hieroglyphs that Jo presumed were the aliens’ language.  The biggest difference she saw was while the lifepod had been roughly spherical, the shuttle was flat on one side.  Jo surmised that side housed landing gear of some sort.  Maybe it was capable of atmospheric re-enty?  Agrippa’s shuttle could not do that; no need, or at least so the designers had said.  But Jo could see all sorts of useful reasons for that capability.

The shuttle stopped even with the airlock then rotated until the flat side faced the ring’s outer edge.  A moment later, one of the protuberances bulged slightly, then parted allowing a circular tunnel to cross the intervening distance between the shuttle and the airlock outer door.  Just before it reached the airlock, the end of the tunnel warped and convulsed, then settled into a shape that Jo knew exactly matched the airlock’s seating surface.

A soft thunk penetrated the hull as the tunnel made contact, followed by a very soft sucking sound that lasted for less than a heartbeat.

The airlock control panel beeped, and a light flashed green.

Malcolm read the display and turned back to Jo, nodding.  “Soft seal.”

“Very well.  Restore ring rotation.”

“Aye.”  Malcolm tapped a control on the workstation and a moment later the faintest hint of a rushing noise reached Jo’s ears.  “Thrusters firing,” Malcolm reported, referring to sets of thrusters mounted tangential to the rings that were used to get the rings started initially.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the bulkhead to Jo’s left began moving toward her.  It always took a few moments to overcome inertia before…

“Turning motor engaged,” Malcolm said.

The wall began to speed up, and a moment later Jo found herself pressed up against it.  She slid down to the deck and stepped away from the bulkhead, moving slowly to avoid bouncing off the deck in the extremely low, but steadily building, simulated g-forces.  The men were moving similarly.  In another circumstance it would be almost comic.

On the camera display, the aliens’ tunnel flexed and shifted slightly, but the airlock seal held and soon enough the shuttle was revolving in time with the ring as it slowly built up to its Earth-normal turning rate.

Malcolm did not wait for an order.  He tapped the airlock controls, and a red light over the inner door began flashing as the outer door slid open.

Nothing happened for several minutes.  Then, just as on Pericles, a doorway opened at the far end of the tunnel.  For a second or two, the only thing visible from within the shuttle was a soft white-orange light.  But then a pair of figures eclipsed the light and walked onto the tunnel.  The doorway shut behind them.

The aliens were just as Jo recalled: short, stooped, wearing grey jumpsuits and breathing masks over their elongated snouts.  Their yellow-green, scaly skin seemed to glisten in the tunnel’s lighting as they approached.  And, as before, they were armed.  Or at least, Jo assumed the staff-like handles that stuck up over their shoulders were the grips to weapons of some sort.  She shifted on her feet uncomfortably, recalling the feel of the alien Captain’s powerful fingers clenching her throat and how those wicked-looking claws had extended from the fingertips of the Captain’s free hand.

They hardly needed any other weapons at all, if the aliens meant to do them harm.

Malcolm shifted the display to the airlock’s inner security camera as the aliens stepped over the threshold.  Their movements became slightly awkward as they crossed from their tunnel into the airlock.  Jo recalled that happening on Pericles as well, probably a result of them leaving their artificial gravity field and entering Agrippa’s.  They recovered quickly, though, and shortly reached the inner airlock door.  There they waited for a moment.  Then the one on Jo’s right – it was slightly larger than its fellow and Jo presumed it was the leader – pulled the staff-looking thing out of its shoulder-harness and rapped the end of it against the airlock inner door.

“Knock knock,” Grant quipped.

Malcolm snorted out a little laugh, then tapped a command into the airlock control panel.  A moment later a soft hissing sound announced the equalization of air pressure within the airlock and tunnel.  He took a moment to read the display then looked back at Jo and nodded.  “Equalized.  Atmospheres nominal.”

“Very well.”  Jo got back into position and smoothed out her clothes.  Not that coveralls really needed smoothing, but it just seemed the thing to do.  Then she looked her little crew over.  They had done well.  Damn well.  Now came the payoff.

She nodded at Malcolm.  “Well,” she said.  “Here we go.”

Malcolm tapped the control panel, and the inner door slid open.

*  *  *  *  *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Tuesday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, Google Play, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

Posted by: Michael Kingswood | August 16, 2014

The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Sixty-One

We’re coming down to the end of The Pericles Conspiracy.  Just three more chapters to go!  Remember, if you enjoy this chapter you can pick up the full book from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Sixty-One

Announcing One’s Presence

The aliens’ star dominated the bridge’s forward observation window.  The window was designed to automatically polarize itself to minimize glare from outside, but that ended up blacking out a significant portion of the window.  Just as well that starships weren’t normally flown from visual cues.

It had been a busy day.

Jo, Malcolm, and Grant spent most of the day working in hydroponics, with just a brief interruption when the main engines cut off, right on schedule.  Jo took a few minutes to maneuver the ship to point the system.  Then she initiated ring rotation and went back to work with Malcolm and Grant.

They made good progress, uprooting a good third of the dead plants.  They would not be able to re-plant for some time; thawing from cryo-freeze was a long, delicate process that, if not done correctly, would kill their precious seeds.  It was not something Jo had any intention of rushing.  Besides, the sheer immensity of Agrippa’s interior volume meant they had plenty of time before air quality became a concern, and the emergency rations would last the three of them for months.  They could afford to be deliberate.

The three of them were in the crew’s mess, enjoying a meal of protein paste, when a warbling alert from the ship’s status display on the wall grabbed Jo’s attention.

Jo swallowed and exchanged looks with Malcolm and Grant, a sudden mixture of excitement and apprehension flooding her.

“Sensor data’s ready,” Malcolm said with a quirked eyebrow.

Jo nodded; she had set the alert specifically for that eventuality.

They wasted no time, running out of the mess to the lift for the bridge.

Looking at the polarized window, Jo smirked.  They could have done this from Control.  But there was just something about being up on the bridge.  The enhanced visibility of it just seemed a more appropriate place for a journey of discovery.  And besides, the bridge was located on the ship’s hub, not in one of the rings.  With the main engines secured, they could enjoy zero-g for a time, something they could not partake in on the rings.  Might as well have a bit of fun while they could.

“Let’s see what we have,” she said, and tapped the sensor analysis display to life.

Her earlier passive scan revealed that it was a binary star system.  She should not have been surprised by that; far more systems were binary than single-star.  But the system’s primary star – G-type, with about ten percent greater mass than Sol – out-shined its brown dwarf partner so completely that Jo missed the dwarf with her naked eye.

That was all well and good, but Jo wanted planetary data, and the passive sweep had been inconclusive for planets, except for one probable gas giant at the outer edge of the system’s Goldilocks Zone.  If there had been more time, she could have gotten more data passively, but the analysis required to eek out planetary effects on the star was a long process.

Which was why they had been awaiting the active radar scan so eagerly.

The system took a few seconds to compile the data.  The system chart, when it popped up, turned Jo’s blood to icewater.

“Oh crap,” she breathed.

Four planets.  The gas giant they had already found and three worlds that were likely rocky but also were far too close to the stars to support life, or at least life like humans or the aliens she had encountered on Pericles.  And that was it.

“What do you mean, oh crap?” Grant said.

“Where is it?” Malcolm asked, right on his heels.

Jo shook her head.

“Where is what?”  Real fear was in Grant’s voice.  He was completely out of his element, and if Jo and Malcolm had reason to be worried, how much worse would it be for him?

Jo drew in a deep breath.  “The aliens’ homeworld.  It should be here, but…”  She trailed off, mystified.

Grant’s eyes widened and he went pale.  “It’s not here?”  He was almost shouting now, and Jo could not blame him.  “How could it not be here?”

Jo shook her head.  “I know we read the star map correctly.”  She glanced at Malcolm.  “Didn’t we?”

He spread his hands helplessly.

“Oh God,” Grant said.  He pushed himself away from the command station and floated over to the rear of the bridge.  He ran his hand through his hair and looked around frantically at the expanse of space all around them.  “Oh shit.”  He was about to lose it.

“Grant,” Jo said, moving over to him.  “It’s ok.  Relax.”

In a flash of movement, Grant grabbed her by the collar of her underway coveralls.  Before she knew what was happening, her shoulders slammed painfully into the plastiglass of the port side observation window.  Grant stared at her through eyes that were narrowed into angry, almost murderous, slits.

“We risked everything for this.  My brother died for this.  And now, these fucking alien critters AREN’T HERE???”  The last came out in a roar of fury, and of pain so deep Jo felt for a moment she might drown in it of her own accord.

She opened her mouth to reply, but what was there to say?  Apparently, she had been wrong, oh so wrong, in her analysis of everything.  Maybe the aliens had not meant for them to bring the eggs here.  Maybe…  No, that made no sense.  She had looked the alien leader in the eye as he – she? – made his request.  As he gave them payment.  The message could not have meant anything else.  Could not!  She must have misread the star map.  There was no other explanation that made sense.

Jo began to apologize, but Malcolm interrupted.

“You two might want to take a look at this.”  He sounded calm and cool, as though nothing untoward was going on in the slightest.

Grant gave a little jerk and looked away from Jo, his eyes still seething.  “What?” he demanded.  His expression said clearly that once he was done with Jo, Malcolm would be the next target of his ire.

Malcolm stood – floated really – with his arms at his side, his face a mask of calm.  He gestured toward the sensor display.

Slowly, agonizingly slowly, Grant let up the pressure on Jo’s shoulders.  He pushed himself away and bobbed over to Malcolm’s side.  Jo took a moment to compose herself; her limbs were shaking and she felt a fright she had not experienced in some time.  Even her brawl with Agent Moore had not called up this much fight or flight response.  But then, she had gone into it reasonably sure she had a chance against Moore.  With Grant…  Jo did not deceive herself.  She had some residual skills from her studies as a youth, but Grant was a trained expert.  If he really meant to do her ill, she would not be able to stop him.

She shuddered, then drew a deep breath and forced herself to calm.  Well, mostly calm.  Then she maneuvered toward the two men.

“I don’t get it,” Grant said.  “What am I looking at?”  The fury, the terror, was gone from his voice, replaced by puzzlement and curiosity.

Malcolm smiled ever so slightly and turned his gaze on Jo.  “A moon,” he said.  “One of the gas giant’s moons.”

It hit Jo like a ton of bricks.  Of course!  It was well known that a large enough moon revolving around a gas giant could conceivably harbor life, though such places were so far exceedingly rare.

Jo halted herself next to Malcolm – on the far side of Malcolm from Grant – and peered at the display.  Sure enough, the gas giant’s fourth major moon appeared to be about Earth-mass, though its radius was significantly smaller – it was likely heavy metal rich.  That would explain the aliens’ compact size and great strength; the moon’s gravitational field would be substantially greater than Earth’s, at that radius.

Assuming that moon was what they were looking for.

“Track in a camera,” Jo said.  She sounded a bit breathless, even to her own ears.

Malcolm nodded and brought up the observation camera control screen, then trained the camera toward the moon.  It took a long minute or two for the camera to align itself and then track on the small body.  Then, finally, the image from the camera came up, and Jo’s jaw dropped.  Her growing tension flew away, replaced by amazed wonder.

The moon was just emerging from the gas giant’s night side.  It was covered by a mass of swirling white clouds overtop a mottled blue and green surface.  But Jo had seen that sort of planet many times.  What caught her breath, and made her shiver a little, was a glittering ring, clearly a construction of some sort, that seemed to surround the moon.  It was thick: from a more acute angle of approach than the one she was taking, Jo surmised it would probably obscure much of the moon itself.

“But what is that?” she asked.  “Can you zoom in further?”

Malcolm frowned and tapped the magnification control.  A moment later the image zoomed until the moon took up the entire display.  The ring became clear.  Jo could see several pylons of some sort that rose from the moon’s surface and joined with the ring.  They could only be support structures for space elevators, which meant the entire ring had been constructed in geosynchronous orbit.  Amazing!

The zoomed-in view revealed a multitude of vessels docking with and departing the ring.  It was impossible for her to evaluate what each vessel’s purpose was just by looking at them, but Jo found herself calling certain smaller ones tugs, others ferries, and still others cargo carriers.  Then a new kind of vessel, larger than the others, got underway, and Jo’s breath caught.  She had seen that sort of vessel before.  Crescent-shaped, off-white in color, with a small blister on its dorsal section that must have been its bridge, the vessel was the same make as the one they encountered on Pericles, all those years ago.

She traded looks with Malcolm and he nodded.  He recognized it as well.

Jo swallowed, a shiver of both excitement and anxiety going down her spine.  There was no doubt about it: this was the place.

“Son of a bitch,” Grant said.

“That about sums it up,” Jo replied, shooting him a quick grin.  “I guess we know where we’re heading.”

Jo adjusted the ship’s heading to intercept that one special world.  Then she left the bridge.

*  *  *  *  *

Grant surprised her.

He found her an hour later as she was walking down the main passageway in the crew’s section of Ring A, about halfway between Control and the Captain’s cabin – her cabin.  He approached slowly, almost tentatively, his normal confidence giving way to uncertainty.  Jo found herself quirking an eyebrow, odd as his approach was.

Grant coughed and looked at the deck.  “Jo, I,” he ran his hand through his hair, then hurried on.  “I wanted to apologize for how I acted on the Bridge.”  He paused and looked back up at her.  “No excuse.”  His voice regained some of its normal assurance as he finished, but his eyes carried an unspoken plea.

The apology took her aback.  She did not expect one, and really, one was not needed.  They had all been through a lot, sacrificed a lot for this mission, but Grant more than she and Malcolm.  It was completely understandable that he would feel anger if it turned out that his sacrifice, so large as it had been, was for nothing.

“Thank you,” Jo said.  “I can’t begin to know how you are feeling…”

“I said, there’s no excuse.”

Jo paused, considering.  “That’s true.  But there is an explanation, and a valid one.”

Grant’s eyes narrowed as he considered her words, then he nodded quickly.

“I trust nothing like this will happen again.”  Jo used her Captain-Means-Business voice.  Sometimes it helped to assume an authoritative stance, and Grant seemed to be the sort who wanted and needed a hierarchy to belong to.

He nodded again, more deeply.  “No, it won’t.”

Jo held his gaze for a long moment then nodded.  “Very well.  See that it doesn’t.”

Grant turned away then, and walked back toward Section B, where Hydroponics was located.  He almost wore a smile as he left.

*  *  *  *  *

After a short nap, Jo went back on to the bridge and strapped into the pilot’s station.  The straps were not necessary, but they saved having to constantly adjust herself in the zero-g environment.  After a while sitting there staring at the camera display of their destination, she frowned.  There was something odd, but she could not put her finger on what.  The little voice in the back of her head quipped that the entire situation was odd, but she paid it no heed.  Something was missing from the picture.  Something that should be there.

She frowned and called up the spectrographic analysis display.  The moon’s atmospheric conditions were what she expected from her last encounter with the aliens: primarily Nitrogen and Oxygen, with CO2 and Helium levels that were significantly higher than Earth’s.  That was not it.

Maybe it was just the anticipation of the upcoming meeting, and of her relative inaction now, after so much running around before.  Preparations for the meeting were made as well as they could be, and she found she was more hindrance than help down in Hydroponics.  Ripping a bunch of dead, dying, or decayed plant matter out of the bins and preparing them for new seedlings was not something she was particularly good at.  And besides, someone had to monitor their approach to the moon.

But still…

It nagged at her for almost an hour before she hit upon it.  It was so obvious she was surprised she had not noticed it before: the silence.  The entire time they drew nearer to the system, and to the moon, Agrippa’s communications equipment had not picked up a single signal, in any frequency range, except normal background static.  That was unheard-of, in Jo’s experience.  The channels should have been full of navigational beacons, traffic control, entertainment networks…the list went on.  But here there was nothing.

The aliens sure did not seem to be talking with each other.

Jo frowned and looked back at the moon, now fully visible on the gas giant’s day side.  The mass of vessels docking and getting underway, transiting the area, or just sitting in a stationary orbit, was no less than it had been the first time she saw it.  But if that was so, why no radio chatter?  Surely an operation as complex as that ring would require an extensive communications network to avoid conflicts and ensure things ran smoothly.

Jo checked the receivers again, then ran the self-diagnostic utility.  Everything was in good working order; there was simply nothing to receive.  It was very puzzling.  Perhaps they did not use radio.  But if not radio, what?

That was a rabbit hole with no end, and pointless.  Even if the aliens did not use radio channels to communicate, they must surely be able to receive them.  It was her broadcast from Pericles to the crippled ship that initiated their first meeting, after all.

Jo glanced at the navigation display: about 10 light-hours from the planet.  They should arrive in about a day.  Politeness dictated announcing their arrival beforehand, and Jo figured this was as good a time as any.  She called up the communications controls again.  Now, what did the first contact procedure for starliners say about the communications system?  Although it had been years since she accessed the contact protocols aboard Pericles, Jo remembered the keystrokes as though it had happened yesterday.  She tapped them in, hoping the algorithms had not been changed.

Her hope was rewarded as the screen shifted to a yellow-bordered command access display.  The controls were exactly as Jo remembered from the encounter aboard Pericles.  She pointed the directional antennas at the planet then, a couple taps later, the ship’s antenna status indications lit up across all bands.

If the aliens had not detected Agrippa already, they would in a few hours.  Now there was little to do but wait.

*  *  *  *  *

The beeping of the proximity alarm roused Jo from a fitful sleep.  She was still on the bridge, at the pilot’s station.  She must have dozed off without realizing it.  She began cursing herself for allowing that to happen before experience made her stop.  Sleep was a weapon, and a necessity.  It would be far worse to push herself past endurance than to grab a little shuteye when opportunity presented itself.

Jo shook her head and, wiping sleep from her eyes, tapped the control pad to wake up the sensor display.  Even though she knew intellectually what was out there, she gasped and felt a surge of adrenalin when she saw it on the display.  Two crescent-shaped off-white ships just like the one she saw earlier were paralleling her course, one on either side of Agrippa, at a distance of ten kilometers.

It looked as though her message had been received.

*  *  *  *  *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. I’ll be back on Tuesday with the next chapter. And remember, you can buy a copy at AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.

If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to.  Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not.  Thanks!

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