Empire of Bones – Chapter Four

Kelsey went back to the library after dinner. It was very late, but all the talk about the Old Empire had made her want to go back over what she’d been reading again. She went directly to the paper books. Many of the modern works were in electronic form, but she preferred paper where possible. The smell and feel of real books filled some need inside her that a tablet didn’t.

An incredible and irreplaceable amount of history from before the Fall had been lost during the orbital bombardment. While the only population center hit was Wash Gorge, the city surrounding the spaceport and planetary operations center, that didn’t mean that the rest of the planet had escaped. EMP weapons had burned out every piece of electronics on the face of the planet.

Military equipment was hardened to survive that kind of thing, but the battle in orbit destroyed all that. When they as a people finally returned to space, nothing useful remained. The major wreckage had burned up on reentry over the centuries or wandered far into the depths between the planets.

Thankfully, the kinetic weapon that killed everyone in the capital city hadn’t left any radiation. They were able to rebuild in the fertile valley. Avalon had been a very popular vacation destination before the Fall. Even with the total destruction of the only major city on the planet, almost a hundred thousand people had survived.

The last emperor of the Old Empire had even sent his son fleeing before the last of the Imperial Fleet went to engage the rebels in a do or die last-ditch effort to save the Empire from total destruction.

It certainly seemed that do or die turned out to be the latter since no Fleet vessels ever followed Lucien to Avalon. Of course, no rebel vessels came either, thank God. Perhaps they’d exterminated one another. Kelsey certainly hoped the rebels were long gone.

The boy-emperor’s escort had stuffed him into a life pod as soon as soon as their ship made orbit. A wise decision since the rebels destroyed their ship before Lucien’s pod even made it to the atmosphere. The escorting Fleet units fought bravely, but they couldn’t stop the attack on the planet.

Even though it was impossible to know for certain, the prevailing theory was that they fought to mutual extinction with the rebels. All anyone knew for sure was that any detailed knowledge of the rebels and their aims was lost in the chaos and death.

One thing they did know was that some Fleet units had defected and fought savagely against their brothers. The aims of the rebels remained a subject of intense debate in the various history departments to this day.

She opened her favorite book on the subject to one of the few surviving picture of Lucien, taken a few months after his arrival. The boy-emperor looked filthy and had a heavy sling full of grain over his shoulder. He also looked like a man determined to save every one of his subjects if it killed him.

His example of working just as hard as every one of his subjects set the tone for his descendants. All sought out public service. All gave much of their time to improving the lives of the people they ruled. Yes, the people were no longer struggling to survive the winters, but the same desire to serve filled her.

Kelsey envied her half-brother. He was living her dream and boldly going into the Old Empire. She knew he’d find the answers she craved. Perhaps that would make up for the chaos her family had made of his life.

The library door opened and her father came in. “There you are. I went to your room to talk, but you’d vanished. I was afraid you’d snuck off to stow away on the expedition.”

She perked up a little. “Do you think I could hide out until they made it into the Old Empire? I could pack enough food to stay in some crawlspace and sneak out for showers.”

He laughed and sat down beside her. “I’m afraid not. I’d worry terribly about where you’d gotten off to and send word to every corner of the Empire to search for you. The fact you just expressed an interest in the expedition means I’d send word to Jared. He’s a good man. He’d turn his ships upside down to be sure you hadn’t slipped aboard. He knows them much better than you do.”

“Pity. Seriously, though, what could I do to prepare for a future mission? I know the competition to go must be intense. I’m not sure I’m good enough to make that final cut, no matter how hard I work. Sometimes your best just isn’t good enough.”

“You are rather behind in your technical education if you wanted to be a leading scientific candidate on a future mission,” he admitted. “The people who made the cut this time worked hard for a decade or more in their chosen fields of study. You’d probably have to expend a similar amount of time going forward to be where they are now.”

She slumped in her chair. “That’s what I was afraid you’d say. I’m afraid being an empress in training isn’t very useful on a mission of exploration.”

“True. That’s more Jared’s job. Perhaps you should look over the personnel manifest to see what kind of specialties they might need for future expeditions. I know I have it somewhere in my personal files.”

He retrieved a tablet from the table and authenticated himself on the system. Then he dug around the Palace computers for a few minutes. “Here we go. This file has the full list of people and their specialties. Well, except for a few last minute decisions by the university heads.”

Kelsey gave him a curious look. “Last minute decisions? I’d have expected they knew who was going months or years ago. And what do they have to do with making the final selections anyway? Shouldn’t Fleet do that?”

“The four premiere Imperial universities are funding the conversion and outfitting of the freighters housing the science labs. They’re also training almost two hundred specialists in any number of scientific fields per mission. Shouldn’t they narrow it down to the best qualified ones?”

“That’s not the question I asked, Father. It seems to me that the only reason the final choices haven’t already been made must be due to politics or money.”

He raised an eyebrow and smiled a little. “That’s a bit cynical, but probably true. There’s a lot of prestige on the line. I’m sure a few last minute endowments have been made to alter a few choices, though I’m confident that no one incapable of doing the work would make the final list.”

“Perhaps I should make a large contribution from my trust fund to one of universities. That puts both money and political interest on the line.”

“Let’s say you did. What role would you play in the expedition?”

She scanned the file slowly. The roster covered every possible scientific field: geology, biology, archeology, history, physics, and almost everything else she could name…and more than a few she couldn’t. Most of the people listed had multiple areas of study under their belts.

Curious, she had the tablet sort the data by discipline. Indeed, every field had a number of people. From an exploratory angle, they seemed to have all the bases covered.

So, following that logic, what might they be missing? One thing she’d learned early in her Imperial training was that big problems didn’t usually come from contingencies you put in place. The things that often bit you on the backside were the ones you’d never considered in the first place. What had they planned for and what had they missed?

“Do you have the full mission parameters?” she asked.

He again took over the tablet long enough to give her the information. She noticed he wasn’t reading over her shoulder. He was watching her.

She’d seen him do this before. He was seeing how she reacted to a problem and how she approached solving it. Did that mean there was a weakness in the mission planning, or was he just using this as a teaching moment? She’d find out soon enough.

It took half an hour to read the full mission brief. She knew some of it was in all likelihood classified, but she had the highest-level clearances imaginable. The spare apparent needed to have the same skill-set and access to details as the heir. Her father undoubtedly knew some secrets she didn’t, but he never skimped on sharing classified information with her.

She almost asked for the crew manifest for Jared’s destroyer, Athena, but she saw her father already had opened it as well. He’d anticipated her thought process. Of course. An emperor had best be thinking a few moves ahead of everyone else.

Kelsey leaned back and stared at the ceiling once she finished reading. All the information was buzzing through her head. She knew it would coalesce into an understandable bundle with a little more time, but already there was something nibbling at her consciousness. Something was missing.

Was it a missing skill or an unconsidered possibility? It seemed as if they’d planned based on the events of the previous exploration. So, what hadn’t happened on that mission?

They hadn’t found extensive ruins before, but this mission was well equipped in case they did. They hadn’t found advanced civilizations either. She pondered that. The orders said they would avoid interacting with any human populations. Well and good, if they were as primitive as those found thus far.

But what if they found a more advanced people? The mission orders didn’t address that possibility. They just instructed Jared to avoid contact. Escape and evasion might prove impossible with a space capable civilization. What would they do then?

Make contact. Negotiate. Set up diplomatic relations.

“Father, there are no trained, experienced diplomats on any of these manifests. What if they need to interact with an advanced society that becomes aware of their presence?”

“Let me see.” He took the tablet and scanned the files. “Fleet has the military side of operations in hand. The science ship has the scientific side. It looks like there may be a gap in the mission statement. I’d suppose that Jared will act as the face of the Empire.”

She narrowed her eyes. “No offense to my half-brother, but is he trained as a negotiator? I’ll grant that he has a lot of patience, but he’s a military officer. If trouble comes up, he’ll use the tools he knows. In this case, weapons.”

Her father looked less than convinced. “Come now. I’m certain he’d never open hostilities without significant provocation.”

“Probably not, but shouldn’t someone trained in diplomacy ride along in case something delicate needs to be addressed? They should have someone onboard who can explain delicate things, like why his ship might be sneaking around in someone else’s territory. It hasn’t happened thus far, but the possibility increases with every mission.”

Her father leaned back and contemplated her for a minute. “What are you suggesting? That I should send you to cover that position?”

Kelsey shook her head. “No. The Department of Imperial Affairs has people that settle disagreements between the worlds of the Empire every day. Carlo Vega, or someone like him, would be perfect. I’d say send two experienced negotiators per mission.”

Her father stared off into the distance for a few minutes before nodding. “I think you may be right. I’ll go back to my office and make some calls. I’ll need to act fast if I want to make this happen. I don’t want to delay the missions.”

He stood and stretched. “You’ve served the Empire well tonight, Kelsey. This oversight could have had very drastic consequences. Well done. Now, it’s late. You’d best get some sleep. One never knows what unexpected events will land on one’s lap first thing in the morning.”

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