Command Decisions – Chapter One

“Behold. Imperial City, the capital of the Terran Empire.”

Jared Mertz stepped up to the railing and looked out over the vast city. Monolithic buildings stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. Sleek grav cars in every imaginable color flitted past at breakneck speeds.

The city wasn’t sterile, though. Gardens bloomed in planters on the steep walls where the sun could get to them and wide green spaces lined the ground far, far below. The scents in the air held a hint of nature.

Pedestrians dominated the ground between the buildings like a swarm of insects. They also filled wide walkways that crossed from one building to another in an endless stream. He’d never seen so many people at one time.

The implant recording fooled his senses. It felt as though he’d gone back in time to stand in the Old Empire at its heyday.

Reginald Bell gazed down with a serene expression. “New York City. The most populous metroplex in the old United States. Two hundred and fifty million people. The first Terran emperor changed its name to Imperial City, but the residents here never accepted it. Even though United States of America no longer existed as a political entity, New Yorkers never forgot their heritage. Their attitude was legendary.”

Jared tilted his head back and looked up. Even though they were on the three hundredth floor, the building still towered over them. “Just how tall is this building?”

“Four hundred and fifty-two floors, counting the penthouse level. It provided homes and businesses for a quarter of a million people. I suspect many of them never left it during their lives. Not even in the end.”

A bird landed on the railing about ten meters away. It was a smooth gray and very fat. It stared at them as though it was waiting for them to feed it.

Jared shook his head. “I can’t believe how real this looks. I can hear the birds, I can smell the ocean, and I can see everything down to the smallest detail. How is that possible?”

“They brought in special equipment capable of recording in far more detail than any human being can actually sense, even with Princess Kelsey’s commando implants. They wanted every Fleet service member to be able to see Imperial City as it was. There are a number of other recordings just like this from across the Empire in Courageous’ data banks. Unfortunately, they’re made for implant viewing only.”

Jared sent a mental command to his implants to terminate the vid. Honestly, the word vid felt like the greatest understatement he’d ever made. The incredible view disappeared, leaving him sitting in his quarters aboard the Imperial Fleet battlecruiser Courageous. Across the coffee table from him, Bell opened his eyes.

The ice in Jared’s drink had almost melted, but he took a deep sip anyway. The alcohol burned going down. “All of that historical detail and only we can see it? That’s going to make the historians revolt if we don’t capture that freighter and its implant supplies. They’ll demand we launch an expedition deeper into the Old Empire immediately.”

The old man laughed. “I imagine you’re right. Not even the prospect of the Pale Ones would deter them. Courageous might be able to display these vids on a monitor, but much of the fine detail is going to be lost.”

The Old Empire had designed so many things for people with implants. They hadn’t considered unenhanced human beings needing to access them. Yet, here in the post-Fall Terran Empire, only the three of them had those implants.

The cataclysmic rebellion and civil war half a millennium ago had wrecked the Old Empire and killed uncounted trillions of people. As of yet, they had no idea how many feral humans survived amid the bones of the Empire. Or how many isolated pockets of civilization like the Kingdom of Pentagar survived.

The Kingdom occupied a single planet. The resurrected Terran Empire he came from added several dozen heavily populated worlds and perhaps twice that number of frontier planets to the count. That left tens of thousands of systems that had once been part of the old Terran Empire left to explore.

And to do that, they had to deal with the artificial intelligences that had staged the revolt and the poor bastards they’d forcibly implanted.

Bell picked up his glass and sipped his whiskey. “Now that the Pentagarans have their first ships ready, when will you be returning to Erorsi? Have the recordings the AI made changed your plans?”

During the final battle to control the system next door to Pentagar, Kelsey had defeated the controlling AI and salvaged its data banks. In the process of gathering everything they could, the marines had pulled data off the communications systems the AI had used. The news had not been good.

“We’re still reviewing the oldest of the transmissions. They go back over five hundred years. I don’t think we’ll get any deeper shocks that we’ve already gotten, though. The AI’s communications records told us everything we needed to know.”

The AI controlling Erorsi received supplies each year about the same time from what certainly appeared to be a ship from the Old Empire. The most recent conversation between a man and the AI had been brief, but chilling. The human had looked like a Fleet officer. Definitely not a savage like the Pale Ones.

Unlike this man, the feral humans didn’t even seem capable of speech. Once Princess Kelsey and the marines had destroyed the AI that controlled them, the primitives had ceased to be a direct threat. They’d still need to summon them to a central area and overwrite the corrupted implant code. Then the poor bastards could live out their lives in whatever peace they could find.

The man in the recording spoke to the AI in an obsequious tone, declaring that the freighter had all the supplies the AI couldn’t build for itself. Including implant hardware. The AI told the man that it had adolescent human beings for them in trade. Children. He shuddered to think of how the others might be using those kids.

Obviously, something of the Old Empire survived. Something twisted and terrible. Jared’s problems had become several orders of magnitude more complicated with the revelation.

“Based on the rough schedule of the resupply, it’ll be along in another few weeks,” Jared said. “We go back to Erorsi tomorrow and set up an ambush. We need that freighter’s cargo and we cannot allow it to raise the alarm.

“Two thirds of Pentagaran ships will hide behind Erorsi while the rest lay in wait with Courageous in the asteroid belt. We’ll catch the freighter and its escort, if any, between the hammer and anvil. The marines will clear the freighter before Kelsey boards to work with its computer.”

Bell nodded. “You’re short on missiles, so will you be able to handle any escort?”

“Courageous says the escort is a normally a destroyer, so I think so. We’ve have three dozen missiles left. Any battle will leave us critically short, though, so I’m hoping this is one of the years where the freighter doesn’t have an escort. It comes alone more than half the time.”

Bell took a sip of his drink. “I hope that’s how it plays out. My people have enough problems. The kinetic strike might not have directly hurt us, but our facility is dependent on hidden farms for food. The impact sent a tremendous amount of debris into the atmosphere. That means a harsh winter that will last half a decade, if we’re lucky. The crops are dead.”

“Hopefully all the supplies we brought will tide you through. That won’t help the primitive humans out in the wild, though. I’m afraid they’re in for a very rough time.”

“It’s a tragedy,” Bell agreed. “One bit of good news. We found where the AI was holding this year’s tithe of children. Hundreds of boys and girls between the ages of four and six. We’re doing what we can to fit them into our community.”

The older man shook his head. “That’s a problem we can solve. What if they send someone looking for the missing ships?”

“They might not. The communications logs have several instances where the AI and the humans had discussed the lack of a freighter the previous year. It sounds as though they just shrug when a freighter fails to return and send another next year. Hopefully by then, we’ll be able to deal with them. We don’t really have a choice. Once we stop the freighter, we’ll do what we can to help your people recover Erorsi.”

“We appreciate your assistance, but that’s going to take much, much longer than either one of us has left to dedicate to it. Your people will be trying to find your way home soon. Are you taking a Pentagaran embassy with you? Perhaps Crown Princess Elise?” Bell’s lips quirked up in a smile.

Jared wished she was coming along, but that wasn’t realistic. Their relationship had grown closer over the last several months. They’d taken to dining together almost every night, and frequently took sightseeing trips around the Kingdom enjoying one another’s company. They’d become intimate in the last few weeks, but no one could possibly know about that. They’d taken elaborate precautions.

He didn’t want to admit he’d fallen in love with her, because that kind of relationship was doomed from the start. One day she’d rule her people in her father’s place, while he’d be going far away, perhaps never to return.

Jared sighed. “I’m certain they’ll be sending an embassy with us, but I doubt Elise will be coming along.”

“Well, I hope for both your sakes that you’re wrong.”

Jared felt his gaze narrowing. “Pardon me?”

The older man smiled. “Don’t frown at me, Captain Mertz. I’m just making an observation. The two of you seem so well suited to one another. And I’d rather not lose the pool.”

“Pool? What pool?”

“The pool the crew has on whether she’s coming along with us. I’m rather pleased to say that most of us are behind you. The Pentagaran members of the crew think she’s not coming. The rest of us are wagering love will win out.”

His heart leapt into his throat. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Bell laughed. “Then you’re the last one to know, my boy. Everyone can see how the two of you feel about one another. That may well be the worst kept secret ever.”

The news flabbergasted Jared. They’d been so careful!

“Please tell me you’re kidding about the pool. Who knows?”

The older man shook his head, his eyes full of laughter. “We go out of our way to spare your dignity and to give you both the privacy you deserve, but we all know. Should I place a bet for you? No, that sounds unethical now that I think about it.”

The buzzer to his cabin spared Jared the agony of figuring out how to respond. He rose and walked over to the hatch, still eying Bell. He only remembered that he could’ve checked the vid feed with his implants after he’d opened the hatch.

His half-sister, Princess Kelsey Bandar, breezed past him. Sister, he corrected. She’d insisted they drop the qualifier. He didn’t imagine her real brother, Ethan, would feel the same way.

“You wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had,” she complained. “Talbot is a slave driver. Tell me you have beer.”

Senior Sergeant Talbot, her ever-present Imperial Marine guard, followed her in with an apologetic nod to his commanding officer. “She’s exaggerating, Captain. She barely broke a sweat.”

Jared closed the hatch with a grin at their repartee and headed for his kitchen. “I have some beer chilled down to the edge of freezing for you. As always. What exactly did the monster have you doing today?”

Not anything she couldn’t handle, he was sure. The commando implants the Pale Ones had forced upon his sister made her almost superhuman. Graphene reinforced bones, artificially enhanced musculature, and sophisticated combat programming in her implants made her improbably formidable.

Kelsey took the beer from him, twisted off the cap, and drank deeply. “Running,” she said when she’d finished a long draft. “He made me run up a mountain.”

Talbot opened his own beer more sedately. “Pfftt. That was barely a hill. My drill instructor made us sprint up much more difficult terrain than that before breakfast.”

“In unpowered combat armor with a pack that weighed more than twice your weight? I doubt that.”

“With that exact weight,” he shot back. “It’s not my fault you’re such a little bitty thing.”

She smiled wickedly at the burly marine. “That’s not what you said when I tossed your ass around the mat yesterday. I seem to recall you saying something more along the lines of ‘I think you broke me.’ Isn’t that right?”

Jared opened his mouth to add his opinion when it hit him. Perhaps it was because Bell had raised the thought in his mind, but now he wondered how he could’ve missed the way these two were looking at one another. The way they were talking to one another.

Their body language spoke volumes. Talbot reached out to touch Kelsey’s arm as she sat down and she wasn’t pulling back when their legs pressed together. It spoke of just the same kind of intimacy that he and Elise shared.

They were lovers.

His sister was the daughter of the Terran emperor, second in line to the Imperial Throne. Talbot was a marine noncom charged with guarding and training her. For helping her to adjust to the implants. For them to be involved in a relationship was…

None of his damned business, he realized. She wasn’t an officer in his chain of command. She was a civilian. There were no laws or Fleet regulations against them having a relationship.

Kelsey frowned at him. “What’s wrong? Did something go down the wrong pipe?”

He nodded. “That’s exactly what happened. Sorry. As for running up a mountain, that doesn’t sound like much of a challenge for you, Kelsey. I’ve seen how much you can lift in the weight room. Why was it so stressful?”

“Because he made me do it at a full run for over an hour. I don’t care how enhanced you are, your real muscles will complain in half that time.”

Jared sat down next to Bell. “I wouldn’t last ten minutes. I’m a Fleet officer, not a ground pounder.” He gave Talbot an apologetic glance. “No offense.”

“None taken.”

Jared pinged Bell’s implants and asked for a private communications channel, which the other man quickly accepted.

Is there a pool on how long these two are going to be together?

Bell’s eyes widened slightly as he looked at the two. Are you sure? They’re always behaving like this.

I’m pretty sure. Let’s find out.

Jared smiled at Kelsey. “Did you know that there’s some crazy pool going on with the crew? They think Elise and I are a couple. They’re betting on whether or not she comes back to Avalon with us. Isn’t that crazy?”

“Really? I hadn’t heard.” Kelsey looked at Talbot. “You know every gambling table on this ship. Have you heard about this?”

The marine’s eyes darted to Jared. “Ah… I might have heard something like that. Purely speculation, I’m sure.”

Kelsey slapped Talbot on the shoulder. “There’s a betting pool and you didn’t tell me? Put me down for whatever you bet on them staying together, because I know that’s where the smart money is.”

Talbot gave her a flat look.

“Oh, and there’s another pool,” Jared added. “You might want to get in on it, too.”

“What’s that?” Kelsey asked.

“It’s a wager on how your father reacts when he finds out you’re dating a marine. I have my money on him sending Talbot to Thule for the next decade or so.”

Kelsey managed to stare blankly at him, but she flushed. That was all Jared needed to know his suspicion was correct. They really were lovers.

His sister sighed. “I knew someone would figure it out eventually, but I never dreamed they’d have a pool.”

The marine shook his head as he stared pityingly at her. “There is no pool. I’d have heard. He just baited you out.”

She narrowed her eyes at Jared. “That’s mean. I didn’t bet against you staying with Elise, and I’ve known about the two of you for months.”

“That’s only because you didn’t know about the pool,” Jared said dryly. “And we’ve only been dating for six weeks.”

“You’ve only been dating six weeks. Elise started a few weeks sooner. She’s subtle like that. Are we going to have a problem about Russ and me?”

It took him a moment to realize she was talking about Talbot. No one called him by his first name. Jared suspected the man’s mother called him Talbot.

Jared held his hands up. “No problems from me, though you’re going to need a new guard.”

She bristled. “That’s bull.”

Talbot shook his head. “No. The captain is right. Lieutenant Reese needs to appoint a new guard. I’ll let him know.”

“Are you serious?” The look she gave the marine said that he’d be better off if he weren’t.

The man had his work cut out for him, Jared decided. Thank God Elise was much less bossy.

Jared decided to let Talbot off the hook. “Captain’s orders. I need your guard to be thinking clearly at all times. I’m not saying you have to go public, as I apparently have, or that your relationship is inappropriate. It’s not and it’s no one’s business but yours. You’ll just have to accept this though, because the change in guards is not subject to negotiation.”

Bell, who’d been silent throughout the exchange, ventured a comment. “It’s really for the best. Your security team needs to focus on your health and wellbeing at all times, even when you occasionally disagree with them. Much like the Imperial Guard was with the emperor in my day.”

His sister squeezed the bridge of her nose. “I suppose I knew this would eventually come up.” She looked at Talbot. “And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I’m happy that we’re together. I just don’t want my position to be a negative for you.”

Talbot smiled. “We’re lucky we had the quiet time we did. If the captain guessed that we’re a couple, I’m sure others are wondering. We should beat them to the punch and be up front about it. If you want to.”

“Of course I want to.” She lifted her chin and stared at Jared. “We have to leave for the surface in the next half hour, but I want to get one thing settled right now. What are the rules about cohabitation? Can he move to my quarters?”

Jared nodded. “There’s no rule that says marines need to live in marine country. Relationships with Fleet personnel do happen. He just needs to clear it with his CO. Lieutenant Reese won’t say no. How long are the two of you going to be gone? We’re flipping to the Courageous system in a few hours to swap the crew on Athena and return.”

He’d made it a point to rename the system they’d found the battlecruiser in, a move the Pentagarans had heartily endorsed. If nothing else, the system would have a significant mining presence for the foreseeable future. Any name was better than the bland number the Imperial Stellar Catalog had listed for the system.

“Don’t wait up,” Kelsey said. “I’m meeting Elise for breakfast in a few hours. With the difference between planetary time in the capital and Courageous, it’s almost dawn down there. Don’t worry. I’ll let her know you’ve been outed.”

The planetary rotational period was somewhat shorter than Terran Standard Time, so they’d drifted into an almost opposite timeframe over the last few weeks. Which made secretly dating even more challenging.

“Thanks,” he said dryly. “She probably already knows. It’s me that didn’t notice everyone staring at us. I’m surprised it isn’t all over the news programs and gossip columns.”

“She probably has a deal with them to keep it under wraps. Well, we need to get going. The cutter won’t wait.” She and Talbot rose to their feet.

Bell rose with them. “I’m afraid I’m going to call it a night as well, Captain. I’m due to transfer to one of the Pentagaran vessels. They’re taking me home to oversee the last of the preparations on Erorsi’s surface. Good luck and thank you for an enjoyable evening. Highness, Senior Sergeant, my congratulations to you both.”

Jared saw them all out before returning to his office to go over a few more pieces of paperwork. It was a never-ending chore, though his implants made faster work of it. When he’d had enough, he took a shower and readied himself for bed.

* * * * *

He woke sometime later when a voice spoke in his head. I’m sorry to wake you, Captain. The ship’s artificial intelligence said through his implants. I have a priority signal for you from Athena.

Thanks, Courageous. I’ll take it at my desk.

They must’ve already flipped, because his old ship was on station near the weak flip point in the Courageous system. Jared threw his uniform on and sat at his desk. He touched the flashing icon and the screen cleared to show Athena’s bridge. Ensign Danielle Cruz, one of his cutter pilots, sat in the command chair.

Out here in the backend of nowhere, his old ship only needed a skeleton crew. The command experience was good for her and the other junior officers he’d assigned to the ship for the time being.

“Good morning, Captain,” Cruz said crisply. “I’m sorry to disturb you so early, but a probe from home just came through the flip point. Fleet has found us.”

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