Command Decisions – Chapter Two

Kelsey enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with Elise. Talbot had declined their offer to join them and gone to bed. She hoped to join him in a few hours.

Elise, it turned out, had been aware that her relationship with Jared was an open secret for some time. She laughed when Kelsey told her how Jared had reacted to the betting pool by clapping her hands and grinning like a fiend.

“That’s delightful! He’s such a reserved man in public. This will do him a universe of good. And I assure you, when the gossip columns finally find out that the “rumors” they’ve been printing for the last two months are true, they’ll be out in force. It will be a feeding frenzy.”

Kelsey blinked. “Reserved? Jared? You’re understating things, don’t you think? He’s the most serious man I know.”

“Then you don’t know your brother as well as you believe. He has a wicked sense of humor. He’s full of all kinds of surprises when you get him alone.”

“Uh huh. I suppose I need to have the official ‘what are your intentions toward my brother’ talk. And I hate to be casting gloom on the moment, but once we take care of the rebel freighter, we’re going to be striking out for home. We have to warn them.”

Elise nodded, her irreverent mood vanishing into a serious expression. “I’ve been discussing that with my father over the last few days. As the heir, common wisdom declares that I need to be here, but I believe I’d be serving the Kingdom by accompanying you back to the Empire. I’ve decided to head the delegation from Pentagar.”

Kelsey wasn’t sure that was the best idea. “What if something happens to your father while you’re gone?”

“My cousin is the next in line to the Throne. He’d assume a caretaker role until I returned. We’ve already presented this to the Royal Council and Parliament. In secret session, of course. They agreed with me after much arguing. I’m much more concerned about your approval, though.”

“You don’t need my approval, but I do. Very much. I think he’ll be very happy that you’re coming with us. And so am I.”

“I hope you’re right. I see something in him that I haven’t seen in any other man I’ve dated. I think he might be the one. If so, that will bring our people closer still.” Elise took a sip of her coffee. “But enough about me. How are things going with Talbot?”

Kelsey smiled more widely. “I figured if anyone knew about the two of us, it would be you. We’re doing very well. In fact, Jared figured it out last night. I was worried that he was going to throw a fit, but he didn’t. Once the two of us get back to the ship, we’re going to make our relationship public. I figure everything will be perfectly fine right up until the point where my father finds out I’m dating a marine. His head will explode, my brother will inherit the Imperial Throne, and he will banish the two of us to Thule for life.”

The crown princess of Pentagar laughed. “Oh, I hardly think it’ll be that bad. I’m certain that your father will be pleased that you’ve found someone who makes you happy. Unfortunately, I do worry that your brother’s antipathy towards Jared will cause him to take some kind of stand against the alliance between our people.”

Kelsey shook her head. “Ethan is many things, but stupid is not one of them. He won’t allow his feelings for Jared to color Imperial relations. He’ll do what’s best for the Empire. In this case, that’s a strong alliance with Pentagar.”

“But he might not like me very much personally. I understand, but that’s unfortunate. How do you think he’ll treat Jared when he assumes the Throne? Hopefully, of course, that will be far in the future. Your father is a fit man in his prime, so I expect he’ll rule for many years to come.”

Kelsey continued to eat while she considered her reply. Feeding her enhanced metabolism was no easy task. She ate like two professional sports stars. She’d slowly been getting over her embarrassment at having to gorge at every meal.

“I’m certain you’re right. Ethan won’t be succeeding my father for another couple of decades. And that won’t be because my father is ill. Everyone already knows he plans to retire once he reaches a certain point in his life. By then, hopefully, my brother will have found someone to share his life with and have kids of his own. I, thankfully, will be nowhere near the line of succession at that point.”

“And you don’t miss that?”

“Not one bit,” Kelsey said fervently. “I’m not looking to rule the Empire. I’ll be more than happy with a husband who loves me and kids of my own. I’ll cheerfully dedicate my life to helping other people with this whole implant thing.”

Elise nodded. “I’m glad to hear that. Based on how well your people have accepted your condition, I don’t think you’ll have much difficulty at home. My people seem to have gotten over their initial shock. That’s very promising.

“At some point, we’re going to start doing implants on a larger scale and you’re setting a tremendous example. We’ll literally be following in your footsteps. In fact, if this freighter has replacement parts, I’ll be the first in line.”

That surprised Kelsey. As much as she tried to put a good face on it, the trauma of the Pale Ones forcibly implanting her colored her reactions. She fought that reflexive reaction every day. “You’d do that? Why?”

Elise’s eyes danced devilishly. “Well, I can only imagine what it would be like for two people implanted people to be a couple. You know, in the bedroom.”

Kelsey paused with her coffee cup halfway to her mouth. “I’d never even considered that. Wow. That’s even more intimate than being intimate. It would be like being in the other person’s head. I wonder…”

She held up her hand. “Never mind. I don’t think I want to think about that. What are your plans for the rest the morning? I’m more wired than I expected, so I’m not going to sleep just yet. For whatever reason, I’m able to get by on a lot less sleep now that I’m implanted. I can take a nap this afternoon and I’ll be good to go.”

Elise leaned forward curiously. “How much sleep do you need?”

“If I get 5 or 6 hours, I’m good to go. I’ll admit that a full night’s sleep is a luxury, but it’s not something I absolutely need. Talbot will be asleep for long enough for me to get a good rest, if you’ve got somewhere interesting for us to go.”

Elise set her coffee cup down. “As a matter of fact, I do. Repair crews have finally stabilized the Parliament Building and we’re going to remove Master Vestor’s carving to be sure the explosion didn’t damage it. It was too dangerous to recover before now.”

The thought of all the damage the late and unlamented Lord Admiral Shrike had caused trying to kill them made her sad. Priceless art had filled the Pentagaran Parliament Building before the assassination attempt. The explosion must’ve destroyed so many irreplaceable things.

She hoped Master Vestor’s carving had survived unscathed. Based on the incredible level of detail in the carving she was taking back to Avalon, even the slightest damage to the work hanging behind the speaker’s podium in the Parliament Building would be disastrous.

“Let’s do it.”

The two of them made their way to a waiting grav limo. Even though the Pentagarans had crushed Shrike and his rebellion, there were still a large number of Royal Guards escorting them in several other vehicles. Several military airships flew high overhead. The crown princess’ security detail was taking no chances.

When they arrived at the Parliament Building, Kelsey was dismayed to see how extensive the damage was. The carved reliefs and columns she’d admired along the front of the building were gone. It looked like the explosion had caused the entire façade to collapse. They’d cleared the debris and scaffolding showed where repair crews were busy replacing the lost portions of the building.

“My God. I had no idea the destruction was so extensive. We must’ve only barely escaped being crushed.”

“That’s not so far from the truth,” Elise agreed. “Thankfully, the police had begun clearing the building as soon as the shooting started. Otherwise, so many more people would’ve been killed or injured.”

The thought of it made Kelsey burn with anger. She’d attended the man’s execution to show her resolve. It had been awful, but she regretted the gesture much less when she considered how much death and destruction the bastard had caused.

“I still have trouble getting my head around what Shrike hoped to gain,” she said, putting the dark memories back away. “He can’t possibly have believed your people would accept him after he overthrew the Monarchy. They would’ve rebelled.”

Elise nodded. “I’d like to think so. I’m still shocked at how many Royal Fleet officers he managed to subvert. If he’d managed to take Courageous, he’d have beaten us.”

“Courageous isn’t invincible. Far from it. With all the fighting she went through during the rebellion and against the Pale Ones, she’s expended most of her missiles. We’re going to have to be very careful from here on out.”

“It would’ve been enough,” Elise said grimly. “With Courageous under his control, Shrike would’ve taken the Kingdom. I have no doubt of that. We were all incredibly lucky that you defeated him.

“Of course, you and Jared have proved your resourcefulness several times already. I can’t wait to see how the historians put that into perspective. Or the vid dramas.”

Kelsey frowned. “Vid dramas?”

Elise grinned and opened the limo door after her guards signaled the way was clear. “Hadn’t you heard? Several production companies have joined forces to document your triumphant arrival. Money is no object. They’ve hired only the best and brightest actors and actresses in the Kingdom. Production on several other vids has ceased due to the effort being expended on this one project.”

The news actually made Kelsey stop in her tracks. “You’re kidding.” She shook her head. “Of course you’re not. That’s horrifying.”

The crown princess took Kelsey’s arm and got them moving again. “Surely, you expected that something like this would happen. How many vids do you think have been made about Emperor Lucien’s escape to your Avalon?”

Kelsey shrugged. “I don’t know. A lot. That’s completely different.”

“It’s precisely the same. You, Jared, and the crew of Athena saved the lives of every single person in the Kingdom. Like it or not, you’re heroes. Mythic figures, even.”

Kelsey had seen that hero worship up close many times in the last few months. It made her deeply uncomfortable. She wasn’t worthy of that kind of adulation. Jared and his crew were the true heroes.

Elise continued, unaware of Kelsey’s thoughts. “I understand the competition for the leading roles was fierce. Perhaps worthy of an epic story of its own. You should know that Riley Thomas actually challenged several of his competitors to duels for the privilege of playing Jared. Personally, I like Jared much better, but Riley is still dreamy.” She sighed theatrically.

With a feeling of growing dread, Kelsey covered her eyes with one hand. “Please, please tell me that I don’t have someone ridiculous playing me.”

“Oh, no. If anything, the battle to play you was even fiercer. Literally, the role of a lifetime. Ridiculous is certainly not the word I’d use for Eva Griffiths. She’s one of the great leading ladies of our time, a true powerhouse on the screen. And while she doesn’t have your small stature, she makes up for that difference in other ways.”

“What kind of ways?” Kelsey asked suspiciously.

“Let’s just say that she has a completely different kind of enhancement than you do.”

“Perfect. Absolutely perfect. With any luck, I’ll be long gone by the time this production is finished.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” Elise said breezily. “I’m sure that we’ll have reestablished contact through the Courageous system by then. The vid will most likely be all the rage in the Empire by the time we get there.”

“With my luck, that’s just about a certainty.”

They made their way through the construction area. Sawdust and floating particles of freshly poured plascrete tickled her nose. Her implants tallied the composition of the plascrete and discreetly displayed it in the corner of her vision. The advanced technology of the Old Empire revealed itself to her in the oddest ways.

The workers had parts of the floor roped off to protect the freshly poured flooring. Thick reinforcements held a new ceiling over their heads, but the walls to the main chamber were gone. The speaker’s podium remained, as did the carving mounted on the wall behind it. Someone had covered Master Vestor’s work with what looked like a thick sheet of transparent plastic.

The marble floor was cracked and crushed. Loose bits crunched under Kelsey’s shoes as she walked. The devastation was almost complete. The speaker’s podium looked as though something had smashed into it. Perhaps it had saved the carving from damage.

The Royal Guards had already cleared the workers from the room, but Kelsey recognized several of the men standing near the speaker’s podium. Master Alec Vestor stood in a huddle with several other men and women in colorful tunics. His apprentices, she assumed.

He turned at their approach and smiled. “Elise, Kelsey, it’s so good to see you both.”

“Tell me your carving isn’t damaged,” Kelsey pleaded. “Its loss would make this tragedy even worse.”

“I’ll have to take it down and return it to my shop to be sure, but I don’t think so.”

Elise sagged in evident relief. “Thank God.”

Master Vestor frowned and shook his head. “It’s only wood. If I could save any of the people who lost their lives in this vicious attack, I’d take an ax to it myself. Things, no matter how valuable or treasured, pale in importance to people’s lives.”

Elise straightened. “You’re right, of course, but nothing that we do will change what happened here. I’m just glad that another tragedy wasn’t perpetrated by that bastard.” She shot Kelsey an apologetic look. “No offense to your brother.”

“I don’t think he’d be offended,” Kelsey said. “Just because he’s my father’s illegitimate son doesn’t make that word something to avoid around him.” She gave her attention to Master Vestor. “I second what Elise said. I’d personally destroy this building and everything in it with a plasma cannon if it saved one person from injury, but it won’t.”

She stepped onto the speaker’s podium and eyed the carving through the plastic cover. The material obscured her ability to see the fine detail in the woodwork. She had to admit she was anticipating a much closer look. With her enhanced eyesight, it would be a close look indeed.

That’s when she felt it. Something registering on her implants.

Her eyes widened as she turned to Elise. “There’s old Imperial technology close by.” She stared down at the floor. “There’s something down there.”

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