Ghosts of Empire – Chapter Four

Jared headed to the brig. Richards wasn’t the only prisoner there now. Captain Wallace Breckenridge occupied a cell on the other side of the room. Oddly enough, the traitorous officer had been right next to Richards the last time Jared had been down here.

Lieutenant Benjamin Gonzales, Invincible’s security officer, rose to his feet. “Admiral.”

“As you were.” He gestured to Breckenridge’s cell. “Why was he moved?”

“The other prisoner asked us to relocate him. Captain Breckenridge was pounding on the bulkhead at all hours and disturbing him. It seemed like a reasonable request. Was that wrong?”

Jared shook his head. “Not at all. Good call. I’m here to see Richards. Open his cell, please.”

“Aye, sir.”

The three marines in the room moved to a spot where they could use their nerve disruptors on the prisoner, if need be, but Jared didn’t expect any trouble.

Gonzales opened the hatch to Richards’ cell. The Rebel Fleet officer had been reading something at the built in desk, but stood to face Jared. The other man stiffened. Admirals had that effect on people, even when they didn’t serve the same Empire. And, to be fair, the two Fleets did share a uniform.

“There’s no need to stand on ceremony, Commander,” Jared said. “I just stopped in to see how you’re doing.”

Richards relaxed a little, but didn’t sit. “Much better since they moved that lunatic next door over a few cells, Admiral. Thank you for that. If I might ask, what did he do to earn your wrath? Your guards are polite, but not very informative.”

Jared could see how the situation would make him curious. “Captain Breckenridge imprisoned Princess Kelsey and myself for a while and involved several ships under his command in a mutiny. His actions led directly to the loss of his ship.”

“That would do it,” Richards said. “He’s been a raving madman ever since you brought him in. Pounding on the bulkheads at all hours. Yelling so loudly that I can almost understand him. You might want to check the soundproofing on these cells. And congratulations on your promotion, by the way. It’s quite a jump from commander to admiral.”

Richards’ dry tone was almost perfect. Too little to take offense at, yet more than enough to catch his meaning. Jared was impressed.

He took a seat on the edge of the other man’s bunk. “One I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, but Princess Kelsey can be somewhat stubborn. In case you were unaware, the move you experienced was to the superdreadnought Invincible. My new command.”

The Rebel Empire officer blinked. “A superdreadnought? Since you only had a battlecruiser the last time we talked, that’s very impressive. You’re much more formidable than I gave you credit for.”

“There’s a long story attached to that. One I’m inclined to share with you. You’ve been a model prisoner. If you’ll give me your word that you won’t give me any trouble, we can make a trip to the officer’s mess. You’ve been eating the same food we do, but I figured you’d welcome a change in scenery.”

The offer surprised Jared. He hadn’t come expecting to make it, but now that he’d done so, it resonated inside him. He’d made the right call.

Richards’ eyes widened. “I doubt very seriously that I’m a threat to a superdreadnought or the crew that captured one. Plus, I’m certain your diligent guards and ship’s computer will keep close watch on me. I freely give you my word as a Fleet officer that I won’t attempt to escape or harm you, your crew, or your ship while we’re out on this excursion.”

A very concise and limited statement, conforming well to the parole Jared had offered. That worked.

“Then come with me. Lieutenant Gonzales, one of your guards will accompany us.”

“Aye, sir.” If the officer thought Jared’s plan a little dubious, he didn’t say so.

“Invincible, please keep an eye on us, as well,” Jared added.

“I’ll keep a very close watch, Admiral, but I doubt Commander Richards will give you any problems. In fact, based on his reading list and spoken commentary, I’ll warrant you’ll have an eye-opening discussion.”

Richards stopped dead in his tracks and stared at the ceiling. “Who the hell is that?”

“Invincible’s AI. And when I say AI, I really mean it. Hence the sense of self.”

For a moment, Jared thought the Rebel Fleet officer would walk right back into his cell. He’d turned quite pale.

The other man stiffened his spine and walked out with Jared. The guard trailed them at a range that would allow him to stun the prisoner, if need be. The three of them made their way to the officer’s mess and found a seat in the corner. The people nearest them moved away when Jared requested some privacy.

They ordered tea and sandwiches. The guard stood against a nearby bulkhead.

Jared leaned back. “I’m certain you have questions. Ask away, and I’ll do my best to answer them.”

“An AI? How the hell did you capture one of the Imperial or system lords? Forget that. How did you convince it to aid you?”

“I suspected you knew more about the AIs running the Rebel Empire than you’d let on. We recovered the hardware and software for the AI from an asteroid in the Erorsi system. Our experts found the malicious code and removed it before we brought it online here inside Invincible. She needed a computer.”

The other officer shook his head. “I reject that name. I serve the Terran Empire. If there are rebels present, I submit they are your people, Admiral. No offense.”

Jared smiled. “We could argue that point for days. It’s just a naming convention, since I also serve a Terran Empire. One that has an unbroken history going back before the rebellion. One with an Emperor, I might add. To avoid confusion, let’s use my terminology.”

Richards looked as though he wanted to argue, but clamped his mouth shut and nodded. “Only for the sake of clarity.”

“As to the battle,” Jared continued, “we captured Harrison’s World and Boxer Station. Have you heard of either of them?”

The commander frowned. “I’ve heard of Boxer Station. It’s a major Fleet base one sector over. Top secret. I’ve never met any officer assigned there. We couldn’t have made it from Erorsi in such a short time. The trip would take weeks and you’d have to go through occupied systems. How did you manage that?”

“There are some secrets I’m not ready to share at this point. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say you accept that I’m telling the truth. We have control of Harrison’s World and I want to ask you some general questions about how the government is set up. I’m already dealing with them and would like to avoid any bloodshed, but they’re making things hard.”

The other man considered him. “Under normal circumstances, I’d refuse to assist you as a matter of course. We’re at war, whether my people realize it or not. However, I’ve concluded that Princess Kelsey told me an unpleasant truth. The history I learned about the rebellion growing up may very well have been false. I want to find out what really happened.”

He’s telling you the truth.

Jared considered Invincible’s private comment.

How can you be sure?

He specifically sent that information to me and granted enough access for me to be certain. He means what he is saying. I’ll notify you if he prevaricates or ceases to allow me to monitor him.

Please do.

Jared knew that if someone gave a computer enough access through their implants, the machine could assess their honesty. A general transmission wasn’t intrusive enough. It required a willful granting of access to the machine. But when it happened, there was no deception. The computer was a perfect lie detector.

“You have my complete attention, Commander.”

The Rebel Empire officer took a deep breath. “I believe it’s in the best interests of my people to discover the truth. I’m willing to give my word to cooperate with you in exchange for the information you have. If you’re right, my people are slaves. I have to know if that’s true.”

Jared nodded slowly. “If you’ll agree to continuous visual monitoring by Invincible, as well as the files you access, I’m willing to grant you parole. Frankly, your help could save thousands of lives. Perhaps many more.”

“I accept,” Richards said without hesitation. “And I’m willing to have an armed guard watch over me, as well. It’s only prudent and you’ll have them standing by in any case.”

“Done. I’ll assign quarters for you. First, though, I want to bring you up to speed on the current situation.”

He explained how the AI in the system had ruthlessly subjugated Harrison’s World, vaporizing cities. How it had moved the enlisted prisoners captured from Spear to the planet. How he needed to get them back, but he couldn’t allow the people below to know who they really were. More importantly, he couldn’t let them free from their world.

Richards shook his head slowly. “That’s a tough nut to crack, Admiral. The higher orders—the people that rule our society—are always maneuvering against one another. Even as an admiral, they’ll see you as a social inferior.

“Fleet officers come from the middle orders of Imperial society. We have implants, as do they, but not from a young age. We only get them after thorough vetting and training as adults. The people you’re talking to probably expect that you’ll cave in to their desires.”

“And how do I get them to negotiate in good faith?”

The other man laughed. “Admiral, they’re members of the higher orders. They don’t negotiate in good faith unless it’s with a member of their own class. Even then, I’d count your fingers after you shake on a deal. You’ll just have to do the best you can.”

* * * * *

The upload took longer than the download. Kelsey wasn’t quite sure why. Perhaps it was a hardware limitation on the part of the cobbled together equipment that the scientists had built.

“It takes specialized equipment to overwrite the operating code in an implant, right?” she asked. “Even if there’s something in these files, it can’t infect me.”

“It’s a little late to ask that, don’t you think?” Doctor Leonard asked a bit waspishly.

“Probably, but I want to hear it again.”

He sighed. “Nothing in these files can overwrite your implant code. That doesn’t make this safe, though.”

“Can you give me an example of what might go wrong?”

“No. I just don’t like the unknown.”

“Me, either. So let’s figure this out.”

She had her implants start the process of unlocking the files. It would take several hours, even at the speed her hardware ran.

They made their way back to her pinnace. She was just settling in when her implants registered an incoming communications signal.

“Bandar,” she said.

“Highness, this is Lieutenant Madison on Boxer Station. I’ve found what looks like an implant facility.”

She recognized the woman’s name as one of New York’s officers. Jared had moved her to Boxer Station before her ship left for Erorsi and Pentagar.

“Is it operational?” Kelsey asked, trying to keep from letting her innate optimism run wild.

“I can’t tell. That’s why I need your help.”

“We’ll be right there.”

She terminated the connection and called Jared. Once he answered, she passed word of the discovery.

“That’s terrific news,” he said. “I have some for you, too. New York just arrived at the flip point with four Pentagaran ships and Best Deal. I’ll route them to join you at Boxer Station. I’d like to keep the new ships out of sight.”

“Send Talbot out, too. He gets all weird when I find new stuff.”

“You mean he gets weird when you jump in where angels fear to tread. I’ll send him out right now. I’ll be heading to bed soon, so don’t do anything crazy. The locals are coming up early. I want to be ready for them.”

“I’ll file a report so you can read it in the morning,” she said. “Good night.”

Kelsey accessed the pinnaces’ scanners. New York and the new ships would arrive at about the same time as Talbot’s pinnace. It would be late, but she didn’t need much sleep. Especially in circumstances like these.

She sent a message to the medical teams, who were still on Ginnie Dare, to join them at Boxer Station.

Half an hour later, Kelsey stood inside the docking area on Boxer Station. Power was back, but the computer systems were still offline. A team of specialists were removing the AI and recovering all the data they could from the other computers. When they finished, they’d wipe them and reload the operating systems.

Lieutenant Madison stood in the vast docking area waiting for her with several ratings. “Highness.”

“Lieutenant Madison. Take me to your find.” Her security team formed up around her as she spoke.

The Fleet officer gestured. “It’s just off the medical center, which sort of makes sense. Several cutters are on their way over from Ginnie Dare. They should be arriving momentarily.”

Several loud “thunks” announced the arrival of the aforementioned cutters. The hatches opened and disgorged Doctor Leonard, Carl Owlet, Doctor Stone, Doctor Guzman, and numerous other medical personnel and scientists.

“Perfect timing,” Kelsey said. “I hope this facility can be made operational. That would make our lives so much easier going forward.”

“Your life, maybe,” Stone muttered.

She clapped the medical officer on the shoulder. “Cheer up, Lily! Imagine what you can do with implants in that fancy new medical center of yours.”

“I’m imagining the hijinks the crew will come up with to end up in there with me,” she said grumpily. “If you only knew how many silly ways they manage to get hurt as it is. These implants will be new territory.”

“What could possibly go wrong?” Kelsey asked with a grin. “Let’s go, Lieutenant.”

Kelsey could’ve found the medical center from the plans she had in her implants, but that would be rude. This was Madison’s discovery. She deserved the chance to show it off.

Boxer Station’s corridors raised bad memories for Kelsey. She’d exchanged fire with mechanical fighting devices under the control of the AI here just a few days ago. She’d acquired new injuries and lost a lot of friends. The regeneration chamber had made her physically whole, but her mind was another story. The scars there might take years to heal. If they ever did.

The engineering teams had sealed away the worst of the damage. Life support was stable and they weren’t worried about any more bulkheads losing pressure. The marines—the few they had left—had searched the station several times to be sure there were no more AI-controlled humans hiding in odd corners or war machines left unaccounted for.

The humans were free of mental control at this point, but Jared was keeping them in isolation for their own safety. She’d seen how Commander Richards had become almost subhuman after he knew who they were and she didn’t want to subject the other prisoners to that. They’d been through enough.

The war machines seemed dead, but the technicians were manually disconnecting their power supplies just to be sure. Then they’d transport them to Invincible.

The battle to control this system had come far too close to failure. If any one part of the operations in space or on the station hadn’t worked, they’d all be dead or captured. They’d lost 70% of the marine force in the assault. Less than a hundred men and women survived out of three hundred.

They couldn’t afford another victory like that.

Kelsey shook off the gloom that threatened to overwhelm her. She had too much to do.

“This is the medical center,” Madison said. She gestured through a wide hatch at a compartment bigger than Kelsey had imagined possible. It had to be twice the size of marine country on Invincible. At least.

Doctor Stone stepped inside and gaped. “My God.”

It had half a dozen full operating theaters, more regeneration pods than Kelsey could count, several stasis chambers, and a compartment full of examination beds. There were adjacent wards that could hold hundreds of sick people. Maybe thousands. The sheer scale of the operation boggled her mind. This facility could probably hold every surviving man and woman in the task force. Even disused, it was damned impressive.

“It’s bigger than I expected,” Kelsey admitted.

Doctor Guzman shrugged. “This was a Fleet sector base. Besides being a huge station, it served as the command and control post for any number of other bases in the surrounding systems. It may have also been expanded after the rebellion started.”

Stone turned to Kelsey. “Can I take it home with me?”

Kelsey laughed. “Where would you put it? Besides, the medical center on Invincible is pretty impressive. All you need are a couple of these stasis chambers and you’ll be set. Come on, everyone. There’ll be time to explore once we assess the implantation facility.”

Lieutenant Madison had said it was next to the medical center, but that was still a bit of a walk. This station had probably been home to a quarter million Fleet personnel in its heyday.

The implantation center looked very much like the medical center: big and disused. A thin layer of dust covered everything. Unlike Workstation Twelve—the machine the Pale Ones had used to implant the AI’s slaves—the dozens of stations in this facility were all-in-one affairs.

Of course, they hadn’t done the full body implants required for Marine Raiders here. No enhanced muscles, shielded bones, or pharmacology units. Only cranial implants. The individual stations consisted of couches the patient reclined on with equipment around the head. They were very sleek. Workstation Twelve was a kludge in comparison.

The scientists and technicians spread out to examine the various couches. Doctor Guzman went with Doctor Leonard.

Stone stood beside Kelsey. “Nothing for commando implants.”

“I noticed that. I can’t say I’m surprised. They can’t have been common before the fall. The Marine Raiders had to have been a very exclusive organization. They probably handled their own implanting. As much as I would love to have every marine with us set up to be a Raider, I doubt we’ll find the hardware just laying around.”

“The AI at Erorsi was getting them from somewhere.” Stone said. “At least there are enough stations to get the Fleet personnel implanted in a reasonable time frame.”

The princess turned to the doctor. “I thought you were against using the implants.”

“It’s the future, Kelsey. It doesn’t matter how I feel about it. Frankly, I’ll be interested in seeing how they work for myself.”

Doctor Leonard waved them over.

“These systems are operational,” he said. “I think. They draw power, anyway. Princess, can you access them?”

This was something she’d done many times before. Kelsey accessed the equipment and found it unlocked. The station in front of her provided her with an overview of the process. It was straightforward, though there were a number of complex monitoring screens. The workstations also had computers at least as sophisticated as Workstation Twelve to oversee the process.

What they didn’t have was voice access. Only someone with implants could operate them.

She turned to the scientists and filled them in.

Carl Owlet frowned. “How do we compare the implant code with the clean version we have?”

“Do we need to?” she asked. “You’ve examined the Rebel Empire Fleet personnel. These machines probably implanted them. They have to have compromised code.”

“Doctor Leonard frowns on qualifiers,” the graduate student said with a grin. “He takes off points if you use them.”

“And rightly so,” the older scientist said primly. “Science isn’t made when you use words like probably, maybe, and hopefully. You test everything and verify. We need to compare the implant code to what we have on our equipment.”

It took her almost an hour to gain access to the code repository. She sent a version of the implant code to Owlet’s machine directly from the workstation.

“This is the same code we pulled off the Rebel Empire officer,” Owlet confirmed a few minutes later. “The hardware is the same as Admiral Mertz’s Fleet implants, so no problem there. All you need to do is upload the clean code to this machine and we can begin using it.”

Kelsey nodded. “I’ve already checked every workstation and they all use the same code. I can send it to all of them, as soon as I unlock their repositories.” She got that process started.

Meanwhile, they found the supplies for the implantation machines. Enough cranial implants to take care of thousands of people. She planned to send half of them back to Pentagar. Even so, there were more than enough to take care of every man and woman in their task force.

There was also a sealed supply of nanites locked away in a vault adjacent to the implantation center. The AIs didn’t like using them for some reason. This supply was large enough to help tens of thousands of people.

Kelsey checked the time. Talbot would arrive in less than an hour. She’d better get set up for the first group because she knew he’d insist on being at the front of the line.

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