Empire of Bones – Chapter Three

Jared exited his grav car at the secure parking lot just inside the security checkpoint. The Imperial Guardsmen then scanned his person completely. He knew better than to bring anything with him on these visits. That was an invitation to have it confiscated. These people made the security sweeps at Orbital One seem negligent. He sent his holiday gifts weeks in advance rather than bringing them himself.

As the silent man in pressed whites ran a wand over him, Jared wondered what became of the gifts he gave his half siblings. They probably threw them out. Prince Ethan most likely burned his.

The Imperial Family sent a combined gift, almost certainly picked out by his father. Usually something useful to a serving officer, though expensive.

When he was a child, his mother regaled him with stories about when she worked in the Imperial Palace. He’d hung on to every word and dreamed of what he’d ever do if he met the emperor.

Of course, he’d had no idea just how well she’d known the ruler of the Empire.

He’d graduated the regional Fleet academy and was taking his final acceptance physical here on Avalon. It was significantly more thorough than anything he’d gone through before, but he hadn’t been concerned. At least until they took another tissue sample for ‘further DNA testing.’

He’d sat waiting for the results in a small medical room for so long that he’d begun to suspect he had some subtle genetic flaw. Looked at in the proper light, he supposed he did.

In the end, the doctor was not who came in to tell him the results. The emperor himself did.

Of course, he’d known who the emperor was. Even asteroid miners who’d been born in the depths of space knew what the emperor looked like. Jared had watched every State of the Empire speech since he’d decided to become a Fleet officer.

That had been the least of the shocks on that cursed day. Finding out he was an Imperial bastard had set his world off course. For his own part, the news was so far out of his realm of experience that he rejected it. Someone had to have made a horrible mistake.

Only they hadn’t.

The next few months had been a special kind of hell. Why the man had decided he needed to tell anyone else was beyond Jared’s comprehension. One couldn’t turn on a vid without seeing something. The only thing anyone talked about was the disintegration of the Imperial couple and the bastard child who caused it.

Worst of all, everyone around him knew. He could feel them staring at his back, whispering about him when they thought he wasn’t listening…blaming him.

Then there was the small minority of people that thought they could benefit from cozying up to him. Those unfortunate few were sadly mistaken in their estimation of his influence. Imperial blood brought him no power. He tirelessly avoided the appearance of ever trying to exert any sort influence, while also going out of his way to preserve the appearance of loyalty to the Imperial House, no matter how he might feel inside.

He struggled with the effects of that day even now. The guard finished scanning him, his expression blank. Jared had met this particular man a dozen times over the years, but he’d heard scarcely a handful of words from him. Did he despise Jared? Did he fear that Jared would take some action against his master? Perhaps he was just being unapproachably professional.

Jared would probably never know. It hurt to be isolated this way from everyone around him. To have everything he did dissected to reveal any suspected hidden motives. He could never be certain what people really thought about him.

“If you’ll come with me, sir, I’ll escort you to the Palace,” the man said. Much the same as he had during the last half dozen visits.

A heavily armored grav car took them to the Palace proper. The grounds were huge and beautiful, as always. That was the one thing he really did envy his half-siblings for, their easy access to such lush and lavish parks at a moment’s notice. Jaxton was much rockier and barren. All he’d known growing up were flat, dusty stretches of land.

The car entered an underground parking garage and his keeper handed him off to different guards, who treated him with the same sterile attention. They scanned him again. Of course.

He raised his arms as one guard ran a scanner over every part of his body. A second stood close by, her hand resting on her belt beside her holstered weapon. Once the man was certain Jared wasn’t about to explode, he checked Jared’s ID and took another ocular scan.

Only then did they allow him to pass, but never without an armed escort, of course. Everyone seemed to have a weapon, but him.

Jared stopped at the elevator and examined his dress uniform in the mirror. He made one last check that the gold rank insignia on his black jacket and shined boots were free of smudges. His black beret with his ship’s insignia completed his uniform. The red striping along the black pants legs gave just the right flair, in his opinion. Not that anyone had consulted him during the last uniform redesign. He hadn’t even been born then.

They rode up to the residence level in silence. The guards took him through enough halls that he was almost certain he’d never be able to find his way back out on his own. As far as he could tell, they never brought him in the same way. While it probably wasn’t true, the special care they took to turn him around made it all feel…personal.

Then again, perhaps they only rearranged the artwork. The collection of paintings and statues was never the same. A significant number of them were on loan from the Imperial Museum, pre-Fall works from the homes of the wealthy here on Avalon, and recovered from the worlds they’d rediscovered since they returned to space. It probably didn’t hold a candle to what had been in the Imperial Palace on Terra, but it was enough to interest even someone not into art, such as himself.

Eventually, they stopped at the doors to the Imperial Family’s private rooms. The guards stayed outside and allowed Jared to proceed alone. They probably thought that wasn’t the best idea, but the emperor insisted that Jared be treated as family.

Jared had no idea what the guards thought of the emperor summoning his bastard son to dinner. There was no telling.

The emperor’s legitimate children felt no need to restrain their emotions. Crown Prince Ethan’s distaste and loathing were obvious enough to earn rebukes from his father. The heir didn’t let that stop him though.

Ethan’s twin sister viewed him with similar distaste, but Jared thought that stemmed almost exclusively because Jared was the physical proof of her father’s infidelity. She wasn’t blatantly hostile. She seemed to prefer a cold, distant demeanor. Only the emperor made any effort to make him feel welcome. Of course, he was the one who insisted that Jared come calling, so that only seemed right.

When Jared entered the enormous living room, the emperor arose from his comfortable chair in front the fireplace to greet him. “Jared, it’s so good to see you again. Come, sit with me.”

Jared suppressed the urge to bow. Even after fifteen years, that wasn’t easy. Innate respect for the Crown sat deeply in his bones. That was true for most of the Imperial population. He extended his hand instead.

Even the idea of shaking the Imperial hand was mind numbing. It seemed disrespectful. He silently thanked God that the man didn’t insist on a hug.

The small table between the two chairs held a decanter of amber liquid and two glasses. One already had two fingers of drink in it. Jared’s father sat back down and poured some in the second glass.

Getting into the mental space where the emperor became his father was difficult. Jared took the proffered drink and sat. The whisky was smooth and warm. It was probably older than he was.

The emperor wore casual clothes. His salt and pepper hair, and fine wrinkles showed that age was taking its toll. He eyed Jared’s uniform with amusement.

“You know you don’t need to wear that. Not that I have anything against Fleet. My time there is one of my fondest memories, though I’m sure my superiors didn’t see it that way at the time.”

“Admiral Yeats disagrees. If I wore anything else, it would be as if I showed up naked.”

That brought a laugh from the older man. “I see. Well, far be it for me to cause you any more problems than I already have. We’ll start dinner in a few minutes, but I wanted to take a moment to congratulate you on your new assignment. It’s well deserved.”

Jared sipped his drink. “I’m excited. Fleet picking me to probe beyond our borders is an honor.”

“I was about your age when the last expedition took place. I’d already left the Fleet by then. I made it to lieutenant and felt that was an accomplishment. I badgered my father to send me along, but he wouldn’t hear of it. The Crown Prince needed to be here on Avalon.”

He raised his glass to Jared. “Being chosen for this assignment is quite an achievement. The Terran Empire is meticulous about who they appoint to command an interstellar vessel, much less who they send out to possibly contact other systems. Though I’m sure you already know this, allow me to state for the record that I pulled no strings. You earned this honor on your own merits. Well done, Commander.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The two of them sat sipping their drinks and talking about recent events for the next ten minutes. Even after all these years, Jared still wasn’t sure what the emperor hoped to see happen. The gulf between them was too wide. Perhaps the man just wanted to connect with his illegitimate son. That wouldn’t be easy for anyone, but it was probably more difficult for the emperor.

He rose when the emperor did and followed him into the dining room. They’d just walked in when Princess Kelsey came in the other door. She wore a pale blue dress made of some light material that showcased her elfin figure. The men sat once she’d seated herself. Jared made no move to hold her chair for her. He’d learned the hard way that she didn’t appreciate the gesture from him.

The princess was dainty. A full head and a half shorter than him, she couldn’t have weighed more than forty-five kilograms. Long curly blonde hair framed a heart shaped face with bright blue eyes. Some nobleman would be happy to have her. Jared wished the poor bastard the best of luck.

She shook out her napkin. “Ethan is feeling ill tonight and begs our guest’s indulgence for his absence.”

A polite fiction Jared knew, but infinitely preferable to the hostile snipping disguised as conversation the prince favored. “Of course, Princess. I hope he recovers swiftly. Please send him my regards.”

Their father didn’t look very pleased, but he didn’t make an issue out of it. “Kelsey, to answer your earlier question, Jared has been appointed to command an exploratory expedition beyond the borders of the Empire. He’ll be leaving tomorrow. We won’t publically announce it until after they’ve departed.”

Her expression brightened. “That’s wonderful! Congratulations. I’ve been reading about the last expedition. It all sounds very dangerous and exciting. Will you be looking for Terra?”

He smiled, pleased at her enthusiasm. “I’m sure everyone would be happy if we found it, but that isn’t our mission. We’ll be locating unexplored flip points and seeing what’s on the other side of them. The odds are very good we’ll find something similar to the primitive systems we’ve already discovered.”

She looked disappointed. “You don’t think you’ll find anything else?”

“Perhaps there will be some intact ruins from before the Fall. That’s what the science community hopes anyway. A true treasure would be chancing on some undamaged computers, ones the rebels hadn’t fried. Finding Terra or any other major world isn’t very likely considering Avalon was on the edge of the Old Empire. This part of space didn’t contain one of the core systems they spoke of in the old stories.”

“Wouldn’t that be something to see?” The emperor mused. “I’ve seen the few existing images and videos of Imperial City on Terra. The buildings seemed to touch the skies. And I’ve always thought the Terran Empire should have Terra as one of her planets again.”

The emperor shook his head. “I suppose I should just be pleased that our ancestor was able to flee here and that the few rebel ships that followed him didn’t eradicate all life before they were destroyed. We lost so much.”

Jared had seen the crater left after the destruction of the former capital of Avalon and its spaceport. He understood completely.

The servers came in with dinner. The palace chefs had cooked the fish to perfection. It smelled delicious. Jared sipped the wine the man poured for him with approval.

Jared continued the conversation after taking a bite of his crisp salad. “I’ve been looking over the records since I received my orders. The worlds we rediscovered didn’t seem high tech before the Fall. They were mostly agricultural planets and mining systems where the asteroid belts made mineral recovery easy. Things would’ve been very different in the core systems of the Old Empire.”

The pictures of Imperial City told that tale effectively enough. Terra must’ve had tens of billions of people. Those not killed in the war would have starved. Oh, certainly, humans were hard to exterminate completely, but the death toll must’ve been staggering. He could see from their faces that the other two had some idea of what he was implying.

His father nodded. “We were lucky. Society dropped back to pre-spaceflight technology, but now we’re expanding again. We’re still the same Terran Empire, our history and rule unbroken. Thanks to Lucien and Fleet’s sacrifice.”

Princess Kelsey ate quietly for a while before coming back to the subject. “We’ve explored quite a ways, haven’t we? How far away do you think the core systems of the Old Empire are?”

Jared shrugged. “No one really knows. Frankly, we’re not even certain we’re exploring in the right direction. Avalon was a resort world with tall mountains for skiing and wilderness for the well to do. One far away from the rest of civilization. When the rebels took out our capital and spaceport with a kinetic strike, it wiped away any computer that had that information. The global EMP strike did the same for the rest of the planet.

“That seems to have been the pattern on all the worlds we’ve rediscovered. All orbitals and spaceports destroyed. The rebels seem to have used EMP weapons to fry any electronics left on the surface. A few very general maps survived, mostly in the few abandoned and overlooked asteroid mining facilities, but none of them showed our sector of space. That’s where our only remaining images of Terra come from.”

He took a bite of his fish, letting the taste fill his mouth. “We might be exploring along the edges of the Old Empire. We know it was huge. We’ve colonized dozens of systems. We’ve probed the flip points two or three hops beyond our borders, which means we’ve some knowledge of over a hundred other systems.”

“Why don’t we go faster? We’ve had flip drives again for almost a hundred years.”

Her father answered the question. “Because flip drives require very rare exotic elements to construct. Combined with the expense of building ships, that limits Fleet’s size. With the mines we found on Grathan a few years ago, the supply of those exotic elements is no longer an issue, however the cost to extract and ship them still is. Fleet is expanding now which frees up a few ships to explore. I’ve decided to have four of the older destroyers assigned to this exploration duty on a permanent basis.”

He nodded his head toward Jared. “No disrespect to your ship, of course.”

“None taken, sir. Athena is a magnificent ship, even if she isn’t the newest in Fleet anymore. And her crew is the best.”

“Of course. The worlds we’ve settled had populations ranging from primitive hunter gathers to pre-industrial,” the emperor said. “Incorporating them into society and raising their standard of living is a huge strain on our economy. We have an obligation to help any civilization we find. That creates a great strain on the Empire’s finances. However, we are working to streamline the process. We’ve been working with the universities over the last decade to train young scientists to accompany these expeditions, too. That doesn’t happen overnight.”

The young woman nodded. “I suppose that makes sense. How far will you go?”

“However far we can get in nine months,” Jared said. “We’ll explore well enough to bring a good record back. If we find something interesting that return date is subject to my discretion, so if we’re late it doesn’t automatically mean disaster.”

“Is trouble likely?”

“We didn’t lose any ships during the previous expedition, but that might have been luck. We really have no way of knowing.”

“I wish I could go.”

“Everyone on this mission has a job to do, ma’am. Do you have any skills that would make it a good idea to bump one of them?” He certainly hoped not.

Princess Kelsey shook her head. “I wish I did. Unfortunately, the life of a princess isn’t very useful in providing real world experience.”

After they finished their meal, they returned to the living room and talked late into the night. He knew he’d have to hustle in the morning in order to catch the early shuttle to Orbital One, but he was loath to disrupt the first real pleasant moment he’d had with his half-sister.

Eventually, however, he had to leave. He rose to his feet. “As much as I have enjoyed our visit, I’m afraid I need to call it an evening. The mission briefing is early tomorrow…this morning. Thank you both for the exquisite meal…and for the pleasant conversation.”

His father stood and shook his hand. “I look forward to hearing what you find. Know that the Empire and I are proud of you and we’re behind you completely.”

“I pray you find everything you hope and more, Jared,” Princess Kelsey said. “Be careful out there. I also look forward to hearing about all your adventures when you return.”

A different pair of guards waited for him when he left the Imperial residence. They led him back to the lift and escorted him to the underground garage. They stopped at the security checkpoint and let him walk to the grav car alone.

He thought that was odd until he saw who was standing beside the vehicle. Crown Prince Ethan.

“Your Highness,” Jared said in a tone free of inflection as he nodded his head forward. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long.”

“Save your feeble attempts at humor, Bastard. I hope you had a good time tonight, because it won’t be happening again.”

A chill ran up Jared’s spine. “Is that so?”

The prince stepped into his personal space. “For your sake, it had better be. This is the one and only warning I’m going to give you. I will not allow you to continue scheming against my family and me. Stay away or I will make certain you never trouble me and mine again. Am I clear?”

“You act as though I have a choice. If you want to see the last of me, speak to your father. When the emperor summons you, you come.”

Prince Ethan’s expression contorted into a snarl. “You think you’re clever? Very well. We’ll do this the hard way.”

Jared felt an uneasy sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he watched the prince stalk away. Just what he needed—more Imperial intrigue. At least he’d have a few years reprieve before seeing his brother again. Perhaps the boy’s rancor would cool during Jared’s absence…before he did something they’d both most certainly regret.

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