Empire of Bones – Chapter One

Commander Jared Mertz, captain of the Fleet destroyer Athena looked up from his console when his tactical officer spoke. “Contacts bearing two-five-zero by three-three-zero. Gravitic scanners show at least three ships under power and on a slow course toward Orbital One.”

He leaned forward in his seat and gave Lieutenant Zia Anderson his full attention. “Put them on the main screen. Have they seen us?”

The forward display switched from a tedious view of the asteroid they were in a close orbit of to a graphical representation of the immediate area of space. A small blue circle represented his ship. The enemy task force, marked with a red diamond, appeared on a projected course that took them ahead of and below Athena’s position. Their current range was just over a million kilometers.

Their slow speed prevented their grav drive signatures from showing up on the gravitic scanners beyond this short range. By his estimation, they’d need to increase speed by twenty or thirty percent before Orbital One might detect them from deeper in the system.

If Athena had been actively scanning with the normal space scanners, the enemy would’ve detected them much further out and gone dark before the destroyer noticed them. Relying on only the passive and gravitic scanners had been the only way to spot them first.

“Have they seen us?” Jared asked.

The tall redheaded officer shook her head. “I don’t think so, Captain. The asteroid we’re grappled to seems to have fooled them.”

“Keep all active scanners offline, but arm the missile tubes and bring all combat systems to standby. Sound general quarters and send a tight beam warning to Orbital One.”

“Aye, sir.”

Lieutenant Pasco Ramirez, Athena’s helmsman, examined his console readouts. “Their drives are at minimum, sir. They probably exited the flip point about three hours ago. At their current speed, they’ll cross our orbit in about half an hour.”

They officially called the incongruity in the space-time fabric that allowed for interstellar travel an Osborne-Levinson Bridge, but no one outside a university used that name. Jared figured it hadn’t taken more than fifteen minutes before someone called it a flip point, because that’s exactly what happened when the special drives pulled on the weakened area of empty space. The ship ceased to exist in one planetary system and appeared in a different one light-years away.

It had made the existence of the Old Empire possible. And the rebellion that destroyed it.

“Be ready to bring our drives online at a moment’s notice.” Jared returned his attention to his tactical officer. “I want to fire two salvos of missiles after they pass us, just before they’re out of effective range.”

“Sir, we don’t have any speed built up,” she warned. “They’ll have us as soon as they pivot.”

The red team ships would need to turn before they could return fire because the massive drives a starship required left no room for missile tubes aft.

“I know. With their momentum and course, we might be able to get out of easy firing range before then. If we want to make these war games more than a toss-up, we need to bloody their noses. Keep working on possible scenarios while I chat with the XO.”

He opened a channel to operations. Athena’s executive officer appeared on Jared’s console a few moments later. His second in command already knew what Zia had reported, but Jared summarized the situation and his plan to make the red team pay for their inattention.

Lieutenant Commander Charlie Graves grinned. “It’s about time they showed up. I was beginning to think they’d gotten lost.”

“I’m sure Admiral Yeats would have something incisive to say about that in the after action report.”

“Wouldn’t he?” The lanky officer glanced away from the screen. “Okay, we’re starting to get some better data now. It looks like six hostiles, tentatively identified as three destroyers, two light cruisers, and a heavy. We’re not supposed to know who’s participating in the exercise, but Ensign Enova says she’s sure the heavy cruiser is Spear. She served her midshipman’s cruise on her.”

Jared allowed the corner of his mouth to twitch upward. “We’ll overlook that little violation of the simulation guidelines just this once. Who’s in command of Spear?”

“Wallace Breckenridge. The ensign says he’s a real “by the book kind” of guy. Apparently, he’s not the kind that appreciates anyone thinking outside the box.”

“Then we’ll be giving him quite the unpleasant wakeup call. Let me know if you see anything else as they close range. Bridge out.”

The six red diamonds slowly inched toward Athena on the screen. The red team would intersect their course about four hundred thousand kilometers away, just inside Athena’s most effective targeting range—half a million kilometers.

Time crept by as Jared waited for the enemy to notice their presence or perhaps send a destroyer to check the asteroid out, but they didn’t. He let the distance between them open again once they’d passed until the enemy was almost out of optimal missile range.

“Separate from the asteroid, Pasco. Zia, as soon as you have a passive lock, fire. Don’t go active until they respond. We might get the second salvo off before they can react.”

The screen lit up with four amber sparks representing Athena’s missiles as they exited the tubes. They screamed toward the enemy task force, their grav drives at maximum.

“Missiles away,” Zia said. “Telemetry indicates target acquisition. Thirty seconds until interception. Tubes reloading.”

There wasn’t any reaction from the red team for several more seconds and Jared could imagine some scanner officers gaping as the missiles appeared from nowhere and came howling in from astern. Zia launched a second set of missiles just as the enemy formation changed speed and began turning.

“Full acceleration,” Jared snapped. “Evasive maneuvers. Set course for the outer system. Use the asteroid for cover as long as you can.” Few of the eight missiles they’d launched would get through red team’s defensive fire, but even one would be enough to leave a mark.

He waited for the enemy to return fire, but they didn’t. Hadn’t the red team been at combat stations? He could almost hear the klaxons blaring and see the men rushing to bring their missiles online.

The enemy destroyers broke formation and began accelerating after them. Their anti-missile railguns fired at Athena’s first salvo, destroying two of them. Another detonated short of Spear, while the fourth lit up the heavy cruiser.

“Hit on the primary target,” Zia crowed. “It took him astern. High probability of serious internal damage.”

The enemy task force finally brought their weapons online and a swarm of missiles streamed after Athena—four from each destroyer, six from the light cruisers, but only three from the heavy cruiser. Less than half the eight Jared had expected from the large ship.

Still, twenty-seven missiles were much more than a destroyer like Athena ever wanted to see chasing them, even at extreme range. “Electronic countermeasures,” he said. “Evasion pattern delta.”

“I’m working on it,” Zia responded curtly, obviously too focused to realize that wasn’t precisely the tone an officer should use with her captain.

He grinned in spite of the tense situation. He loved his people.

Athena’s second salvo roared in on the enemy. The destroyers had pulled far enough away from their larger brethren that they could no longer provide effective anti-missile defenses for them. Their absence became clear when a second missile slammed into Spear. The massive cruiser rolled as explosions wracked her internally. It looked like her drives had failed.

Electronic countermeasures lured many of the red team missiles aside. Athena’s railguns accounted for some of the rest. The number of missiles that had acquired them at this range surprised Jared. Five got through their defensive fire and roared down on Athena like the wrath of God.

The bridge went dark. The only sound Jared could hear was Zia cursing. The consoles reset as the simulation ended and returned to standby mode, still locked out of operational control of the destroyer.

The main screen came to life showing the curve of the planet Avalon below them. Orbital One sat about ten thousand meters away. The breathtaking view dissolved as Zia put an incoming transmission on the screen.

Admiral Robert Yeats, Commanding Officer of Capital Fleet, shook his head. “While that was a glorious death, Commander, you still lost your ship.”

Jared smiled ruefully. “The target was too tempting to pass up, Admiral. I didn’t expect their fire to be so accurate at long range.”

“Save the heroics for when you don’t have a choice. You should’ve let them pass and been satisfied with warning us they were coming. That is what a picket is for, you know.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The better targeting was one of the enemy advantages for this war game. I’m impressed that only five of their missiles got through your defenses. You almost got away with your sneak attack.”

“As you say, sir, almost wasn’t good enough this time.”

The screen split as Captain Breckenridge of Spear—probably also the red team commander—and Captain Alice Quinn, the blue team commander, came into the circuit. Breckenridge looked pissed, Quinn bland.

“What kind of bull was that?” Breckenridge demanded. “The sim didn’t display Athena correctly.”

“Actually, it did,” Quinn said. “Commander Mertz used an asteroid as cover. Well done, Jared.”

“Thank you, ma’am, but I still lost my ship. Not a good day for me or my crew.”

The dark-skinned captain nodded. “True, but you took out a heavy cruiser. Spear’s fusion plants went critical right after you blew up. That took her out and damaged both light cruisers. That said, while it was an excellent trade off from a strictly tactical perspective, I’d prefer you came back home alive.”

Breckenridge bristled. “Athena’s actions were clearly outside the boundaries of—”

“That’s enough, Wallace,” Yeats said in a tone that brooked no disagreement. “Just accept that you lost this one. Maybe next time you’ll be a little more paranoid. That’s why we have these war games, to learn what we can before the real shooting starts.”

The admiral glanced at his chrono. “We’ll have our after action briefing in one hour on Orbital One. Get something to eat and come ready to tear this operation apart. We have a number of things to discuss. Dismissed. Mertz, please adjourn to your office and stay on the channel.”

Jared left Zia in charge of the bridge, took the lift down one deck, and made his way to his office. He wondered what the admiral wanted with him. To chew him out in private? That wasn’t the old man’s style. He’d tear a limb off you in public and use it to beat you to death if he thought you deserved it.

Once he came back on the channel, the flag officer continued, “Once again, Commander, well done. I’m afraid you won’t be joining us for the briefing, though. Send your XO to cover for you. You have other plans.”

“That sounds ominous, sir.”

The admiral smiled. “Not really. Your father has requested the pleasure of your company for dinner. He wants to see you one last time before you ship out on the survey tomorrow.”

Jared kept his face blank, but inside he cursed. The very last people he wanted to spend time with were his father and half-siblings.

“I see. I will, of course, represent Fleet with honor.”

The admiral’s brows drew together. “Far be it from me to dictate the actions of a fellow officer in his social life, but when the ruler of the Terran Empire requests our presence, we go.

“Allow me to also stress that while you might have reservations about your relationship with the Imperial Family, it isn’t prudent to make an issue of them, even over a secure channel with someone who’s known you since you joined Fleet. It’s far safer if people think you’re happy to be the emperor’s son, even if you were born on the wrong side of the sheets.”

Yeats leaned forward and spoke more softly. “Fleet is supposed to be non-political, but you need to be the most enthusiastic supporter of the Empire and the Imperial Family. People are watching and waiting for you to give them a reason to hold your illegitimate birth against you. You can’t give them a lever to use against you, Jared.”

Jared sighed a little. “You won’t find a more ardent supporter of the Empire or the emperor, sir. It’s just hard to be enthusiastic when my half-siblings loath me and don’t miss a single opportunity to make their objections to my presence painfully clear. The heir couldn’t hate me more if I peed in his soup. Rubbing my existence in his face is not doing me or Fleet any favors. One day he’ll lead the Empire and I’ll be on the beach.” Or dead.

“The emperor is in excellent health and the heir wouldn’t dare take out a vendetta against a Fleet officer. Don’t be so melodramatic.”

The admiral hadn’t seen how deeply Ethan Bandar hated Jared. No one else had heard the threats the man made when no one else was around. They got worse every time the emperor insisted that Jared come to the Imperial Palace, too.

“I wish I shared your…optimism, sir.”

“I’ll see you at the final mission briefing tomorrow morning, Commander. Have a good time. Consider that an order.” The screen went dark.

Perfect. Jared wished the admiral understood everything he had to endure after the Fleet entrance physical revealed his parentage. He couldn’t comprehend why the emperor insisted on torturing him two or three times a year with these “family get-togethers.”

Not that any of it mattered, though. He’d go and he’d do his best not to let his relatives get under his skin.

He summoned Graves to his office. When the XO had taken a seat, he filled him in on his dinner plans. Graves knew how he felt. He’d understand.

Jared took a deep breath and tried to relax his tense back. “I suppose I should be used to the situation. It’s been fifteen years since I found out I was his son, but his children complicate things. I’m living proof that their father had an affair, and I’m the reason their mother divorced him. Not a good recipe for making friends.”

“I suppose not,” his friend said. “I bet we could come up with some mechanical failure requiring your presence.”

Jared allowed himself a small smile. “I appreciate the thought, but I don’t think that would go over very well the day before we leave on our grand exploration mission. Besides, my news isn’t all bad.”

Graves gave Jared a suspicious look, probably because of his captain’s mock-cheerful tone. “Oh? How’s that?”

“I don’t have to go to the after action briefing and have Breckenridge burn holes through me with his eyes. You get that honor.”

“Today just keeps getting worse,” Graves grumbled. “You’d think being blown into atoms would be the ultimate low point, but somehow you found a way to make death appealing. Thanks, Jared.”

“What can I say? I’m a beacon of joy. Don’t wait up.”

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