Ghosts of Empire – Chapter One

“What the hell is that?” Princess Kelsey Bandar asked.

Commander Scott Roche, captain of the Imperial Fleet destroyer Ginnie Dare, leaned over Kelsey’s shoulder and frowned at the derelict tumbling on her console. “A mystery. I’ve been studying the Old Empire Fleet databases and that ship isn’t in it.”

Kelsey knew that for a fact. She’d downloaded all the available ship’s databases—military and civilian—into her implants before they’d started this survey of the graveyard, the name she’d decided fit the swarm of wrecked Old Empire ships orbiting Boxer Station.

Admiral Jared Mertz—her half-brother—had tasked Commander Roche with watching over the sector base and examining the graveyard while he handled the negotiations with Harrison’s World to get their captured people back. Since those talks were going nowhere fast, she’d decided to take a pinnace out to the destroyer and explore the sea of dead ships.

The horror floating before them in the cold darkness was mind-numbingly vast. They’d tallied tens of thousands of wrecks. All of them filled with dead Fleet personnel, she was sure. They’d been resting here since the destruction of the Old Empire more than five centuries ago.

They’d only examined a small area of the graveyard. The worst-case estimates were between forty and fifty thousand derelicts in wide orbits around Boxer Station. And those were the ships the rebels hadn’t destroyed outright. She still couldn’t imagine how many desperate battles the Old Empire had lost to fill this terrible place.

Most of the ships they’d found weren’t salvageable, but the Terran Empire needed every one that was. Or they would once the enemy, the terrible shade of the Old Empire, discovered they hadn’t won a complete victory. The AIs that had crushed the Old Empire would attack the reborn Terran Empire ferociously.

Commander Eliyanna Kaiser and the destroyer New York were on their way to the Pentagaran and Erorsi systems. They’d bring back as many people and ships as their allies could spare. They’d need every one.

Jared’s ragtag fleet consisted of two destroyers that weren’t capable of fighting Old Empire ships of any class, two heavily damaged Old Empire battlecruisers, and a severely battered Old Empire superdreadnought, Invincible.

Of the battlecruisers, the ship they’d arrived in—Courageous—was still capable of all operations, but the other one—Scott Pond—wasn’t able to flip. That meant it couldn’t leave this system.

With more people, they could bring Boxer Station—the massive Old Empire Fleet base in this system—back online and put their ships into the construction yards for repair.

Which brought her full circle. The AIs that had brought the Old Empire derelicts here after defeating them in battle had sorted each group of ships into classes. This single ship floated alone and none of the probes had seen anything remotely like it.

One of the obvious differences between it and the other ships was its size. This vessel was only about four times the tonnage of a marine pinnace, but it had flip drives. From the outside, it didn’t seem badly wrecked. There was a large hole in the hull amidships, but the damage looked contained.

Kelsey turned in her seat and devoted her full attention to Commander Roche. On one of the Old Empire ships, she could’ve used her implants to continue examining the ship through the scanners, but on Ginnie Dare, she was limited to what she could see with her own eyes.

“Maybe it’s some kind of scout ship,” she said. “Though, it seems as though there’d be more of them and the databases would at least know what it was.”

“Something that small wouldn’t take long to explore,” he said. “I don’t like things I can’t explain. We should check it out.”

“Good idea. I’ll take my security detail over for a look. If you’ll get a technical team together, they can assess things once we clear it.”

The Fleet officer nodded. “I’ll get them down to marine country. I feel obligated to tell you to be careful. Admiral Mertz wouldn’t be pleased with me if anything happened to you.”

No, her brother would be pretty upset. That made her feel good inside. Their relationship had really improved over the last half-year. Her father was going to be shocked and pleased about that when she finally got home.

Her twin brother, Ethan, was going to be surprised as well, though hardly pleased. He hated Jared and didn’t trust him. She hoped that the events of this expedition would help change his mind, but she wasn’t going to hold her breath.

“I promise to be cautious,” Kelsey said. “Besides, I’ll be in commando armor. I doubt anything over there would be able to harm me. I’ll stay in constant contact. You can mother hen me if you feel the need.”

“I’m so reassured.”

She laughed. “You’ll get used to me after a few more months. Then you’ll barely cringe when something terrible happens.”

Kelsey had to smile at his suddenly stricken expression. “Lighten up, Scott. Everything will be fine.”

After a beat, he sighed. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the second in line to the Imperial Throne calling me by my first name.”

“Relax,” she said. “We put our pants on just like everyone else. With servants to hold us up and slide them on while we drink ridiculously expensive tea served in tiny cups made from the bones of our enemies.”

He smiled. “Just like I’d always imagined. Be careful, Highness.”

* * * * *

“Your demands are unacceptable,” Deputy Coordinator King said haughtily. “I cannot comprehend what you hope to gain by defying me. I am one of the higher orders and I demand you comply with my lawful directives.”

Jared was glad this conversation was taking place in his office. He was doubly glad that the woman was talking with him remotely. If she was this bad on screen, he could only imagine how obnoxious she was in person.

Deputy Coordinator King was the most trying individual he’d dealt with since leaving Avalon. The only person who rubbed him worse might be his half-brother Ethan. And Ethan wanted to kill Jared.

He tamped down his temper and gave the woman a bland smile. “My demands, Deputy Coordinator King, are not defiance. You have Fleet personnel in your custody. Several thousand people that you have no right to hold under any circumstances. If you want to discuss other matters, I’m more than willing to do so, but only once you return my people to me.”

“Perhaps if I made examples of a few of them it would shake you out of the belief that you can dictate terms to me or Harrison’s World,” she said coldly. “Those people were transported here as prisoners by the system lord. You would do well to remember who you truly serve, Admiral Mertz.”

Her less than subtle emphasis on his rank had far less impact than she probably expected. Three days ago, he’d been a commander. The shock of his sister promoting him still hadn’t worn off.

Not that he was going to share that point with Deputy Coordinator King. He wasn’t even a member of her version of Fleet. Harrison’s World was under the control of what his people called the Rebel Empire. The Old Empire his people had fled from had fallen to the rebels and now answered to the AIs that had killed uncounted trillions of people.

Of course, Harrison’s World hadn’t been in the good graces of the system AI when Jared and his people snuck in. Jared had no idea what they’d done to warrant imprisonment, but the AI had placed three weapons platforms in orbit and had destroyed a number of urban centers.

In other words, the woman on his screen had a lot of nerve talking to him as though she had any leverage. Particularly with the Rebel Empire Fleet that she believed he represented. And he wouldn’t tolerate her threatening his people.

“With all due deference, Deputy Coordinator King, you’re full of crap.”

Her eyes bugged. “How dare you! I’ll have you flogged for speaking to me in—”

“You seem to have forgotten your circumstances,” Jared said harshly. “Are you claiming the system lord imprisoned you unjustly? I’m a duly appointed Fleet Admiral with the full backing of the Empire. One in complete control of the orbital bombardment platforms. I suggest you remember how precarious your position truly is before you make threats like that.”

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. “The Lord made a mistake. Not the only one, based on your mission here to deal with it. I feel confident that your orders also include instructions to do exactly what I’ve been insisting on.

“We’ll find out when I come up to discuss the matter in person tomorrow morning. You will send a cutter for me. I suggest you take whatever steps you need to salve your bruised ego, Admiral, because this matter is going to be decided in my favor.”

She disconnected without another word.

Jared rubbed his eyes. “Can she really be that stupid?”

“I’ve discovered that rhetorical questions often have yes for an answer,” a mellow voice said through the overhead speakers. Invincible, the AI they’d installed inside the hull of the same name was fully sentient, just like the lords of the Rebel Empire, only without their homicidal core rules.

“That’s because we have to ask to be sure we heard the idiots correctly the first time,” Jared said. He leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. “Which doesn’t explain why she’s so certain that she’s going to get what she wants. Does she know something we don’t?”

“Almost certainly. Until we can unlock the memory of the AI from Boxer Station, we have no idea what caused it to suppress this system. Though the presence of this vessel does indicate some kind of revolt was in progress.”

They’d found Invincible floating in the graveyard when they’d snuck into distant orbit around Boxer Station. Rebel Fleet personnel and civilians from Harrison’s World had restored it to complete functionality, minus any computer system. They’d also shielded her power systems, so they’d obviously desired to avoid discovery.

The final messages from the people onboard had strongly hinted that they were going to rebel against the AI. They would’ve failed, but they wouldn’t have known that until it was too late. It had taken the addition of his ships to make the battle one they could win. Barely.

The senior Rebel Fleet officer had left a message to the woman ruling Harrison’s World, Olivia West. She must’ve been in on the coup. Jared didn’t know the reasons why, but there was more going on than met the eye.

“At least we have all night to figure out how to handle her,” Jared said. “And with the flip point jammers in place, we can finally be mostly certain no one is about to spring a surprise on us. How goes the scan of the system?”

“Our probes are still searching the more distant areas, but they’ve located a single weak flip point. I only received the data a few minutes ago.”

Weak flip points were a previously unknown version of regular flip points. Unlike the normal kind that assured reliable travel across hundreds of light-years, the weak ones were hard to detect. And, in at least some cases, didn’t assure two-way travel. Hence, his people being trapped so far from home.

The science teams were working overtime to understand them more fully, but he didn’t trust having one in his lap.

He grunted. “So there’s a backdoor? Wonderful.”

“If I might be so bold, Admiral, you’ve never had anyone sneak out of one to surprise you.”

“Unless you count Captain Breckenridge.”

The disgraced Fleet captain was in Invincible’s brig. He’d betrayed his oath to the Empire and attempted to kidnap Princess Kelsey. His retreat through another weak flip point had led to the crippling of his ship and the capture of thousands of Fleet personnel. The very ones Jared was trying to get back.

“We should send a probe through,” Jared said, “but I’ll hold off until we know a little more about the situation here. We absolutely don’t need a second front to this war. Any word from Kelsey?”

“She’s exploring an unusual derelict,” the AI said, “but everything looks safe enough, according to Captain Roche. He’s listening in as they check it out.”

“Well, I certainly hope she doesn’t find anything dangerous. She has a knack for turning up trouble in the most unusual places.”

“The odds of that seem unlikely.”

“That’s only because you don’t know my sister. If there’s something dangerous on any of those ships, she’ll find it.”

* * * * *

Kelsey headed into the lift. It took her swiftly down to the appropriate level and she made her way to Ginnie Dare’s marine country.

It was kind of spooky. Ginnie Dare had the same layout as Jared’s old ship, Athena. Kelsey had many fond memories of spending time with the marines there.

Bittersweet, too. So many of the men and women she’d befriended were gone now, killed in the various actions against the Pale Ones and the AIs. The worst loss was Lieutenant Tim Reese, the commanding officer of the marines on Athena and then Courageous. He’d died taking Boxer Station.

Kelsey put on a neutral face and walked in. This wasn’t the time to bring everyone down.

The marines were bustling around doing tasks that she actually understood now. Commander Roche must’ve called ahead to start people moving.

Lieutenant Angela Ellis, Ginnie Dare’s detachment commander, was waiting for her. “Highness. The captain let us know about the excursion. Do you need a full complement of marines?”

Kelsey looked up at the woman. Angela was tall and well built. Not just tall for a woman. Really tall. As in over two meters. She towered over most of the men under her command. And she was easily a giant as far as Kelsey was concerned. Half a meter was a lot of difference.

If they were ever able to start enhancing other people, Angela would make a formidable combatant.

“I don’t think so,” Kelsey said. “It’s not very big. I’m thinking Senior Sergeant Coulter, my team, and some techs.”

Howard Coulter was the man that Marine Captain Russ Talbot—also Kelsey’s boyfriend—had placed in charge of her guard detail. He’d be going no matter what she said, so she might as well incorporate him into her plan.

If her decision made the marine lieutenant feel slighted, she showed no sign of it. “I assumed that’s what you’d want, so they’re already armoring up. I took the liberty of getting your gear prepped, as well.”

“Thank you. This shouldn’t take long. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go get ready.”

The compartment outside the armory was where marines prepped for missions. As they were a co-ed organization, there weren’t separate areas for women. That had taken a while to get used to, but now she was able to strip down and armor up without turning beet red.

The marines were almost ready to go, so she changed into her skinsuit. The Old Empire garment provided some protection of its own, which had come in handy on Boxer Station. It also allowed her armor to handle waste management. That was embarrassing, too, but after six hours in a suit, one welcomed the ability to use the bathroom.

Coulter and his people were still using Terran Empire Marine armor. Her powered Old Empire commando suit was significantly tougher and more capable than anything they’d ever seen before.

They’d captured suits of powered marine armor from the Rebel Empire that unenhanced people could use, but she didn’t trust them. Those paranoid bastards had put bombs and other devices in them to control their military.

In her mind, it was far better to get something set up to do implants again and allow their marines to use the armor they’d found on so many Old Empire ships in the graveyard. The vast amount of salvageable equipment was arguably enough to outfit every marine in the Terran Empire, with plenty left over to share with their allies.

Kelsey’s commando armor was dark grey with a faceless helmet. It augmented her already formidable strength and speed. It wasn’t invincible by any means, but it made survival possible in the insanity that was combat with Old Empire weapons.

The armor hung from a rack, so she was able to open the back and step into it. A mental command through her cranial implants closed it up around her. She stepped clear and held her helmet in the crook of her arm.

Coulter and the half dozen marines assigned to her team gathered at her gesture. “We’re ready, Princess. What’s the target?”

“A mystery ship that doesn’t appear in the Old Empire databases. It might not even be Imperial. We’ll board and clear. Once we’re sure it’s safe, we’ll bring the technical people in to give it a look.”

Coulter nodded. “Got it. We go in prepared for hostile action. If it’s as dead as everything else in the graveyard, no problem. If it has any surprises, we’re ready. Mount up, people.”

They boarded the marine pinnace together with a dozen technicians.

The approach went smoothly enough. Since they were using an Old Empire pinnace, she could interface with its scanners.

The small ship certainly looked dead as it tumbled in space half a dozen kilometers from Ginnie Dare, but Invincible proved that appearances could be deceptive. The people from Harrison’s World had brought the superdreadnought online and shielded her so well that Jared’s people hadn’t known she was operational until they boarded her.

Kelsey spotted a small hole on the other side of the ship from the large one she’d noted earlier. It was less than half a meter in diameter. It looked as though something small and fast had punched through the vessel. An asteroid, perhaps?

She supposed it was possible the damage was post-capture. Maybe they could figure it out once they boarded.

The pinnace came in slowly and matched the tumble of the ship. They clamped on with a thump.

“We’re tight,” the pilot said. “I’m going to use the pinnace’s grav drives to level us out. With a ship this small, it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”

The ship slowed its mad spin until it was at rest relative to Ginnie Dare. Only then did Coulter take off his restraints and stand.

“Boarding party, form up on the ramp,” he said.

Kelsey made no fuss when the marines put her at the back. If she needed to get up front, she could do so quickly enough. Everyone hooked up lines to prevent something from throwing one of them into deep space.

The ramp lowered, revealing the cold, bright stars looking down on the tomb beneath their feet. The marines led the way onto the hull, their magnetic boots holding them steady. Her armor had a miniature grav drive that would allow her to fly around if she chose, but she followed their lead.

They could’ve gained access through the rupture in the hull, but there was an airlock right there. The marines circled it and one of them accessed the controls.

“This looks like Old Empire hardware,” the woman said after a minute. “It isn’t opening. It has power, it’s just not responding to me.”

“Let me take a look,” Kelsey said.

The controls had power. She could feel them through her implants. She sent a command to open and the system promptly rejected her.

Nonplussed, she pressed the manual controls to open it. The lock queried her implants and rejected her a second time.

“That’s new,” she said. “It pinged my implants and told me to get lost.”

“Welcome to the world the rest of us live in, Princess,” Coulter said with a smile. “Luckily, we have another way in.”

Kelsey looked at the rupture. The interior of the ship wasn’t inside the reach of the pinnace’s floodlights. The inky blackness had an ominous feel to it. What would they find inside this wreck? Or, what might find them?

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