Ghosts of Empire – Chapter Three

“Hey there, Cowboy.”

Jared glanced over at his executive officer in surprise. No, Charlie Graves wasn’t his XO anymore. Kelsey had promoted him to captain and placed him in command of the battlecruiser Courageous. Which was where he should be, now that Jared thought about it.

“Charlie, what the hell are you doing on my bridge? Don’t you have a ship to put back together?”

The younger man grinned. “I do, Admiral, but I need to speak with you privately. Since we had a cutter coming over for some spare parts, I figured now was the time. Might we step into your office, sir?”

Jared rose and gestured toward his office just off the flag bridge. “After you. Zia, you have the conn.”

“Aye, sir.” His tactical officer, now promoted to XO of Invincible, took over his station. Her longtime partner in crime, Pasco Ramirez, was filling that role for Graves on Courageous. There were higher-ranking officers available, but Jared didn’t trust them.

The officers from Spear and Shadow had been on Boxer Station when Kelsey and the marines had captured it, but they’d supported Captain Wallace Breckenridge’s mutiny.

Of course, so had the destroyers New York and Ginnie Dare, but he doubted they’d try anything funny now. He’d assigned observers to keep an eye on them.

His flag office was more spacious than even his old one on Courageous had been. Its size and relative opulence made him more than a bit uncomfortable. He wasn’t precisely sure where his people had found the furniture, but as it was a gift, he couldn’t very well refuse it.

Ignoring his almost comically large desk, Jared took a seat in one of the comfortable chairs. “What’s bothering you, Charlie?”

His long-time friend sat across from him. “Permission to speak freely?”

“Cut loose. I need to know exactly what you’re thinking.”

“I think you’re making a strategic blunder in the pursuit of a tactical solution.”

He felt himself smiling. “That’s plain enough. And I thought your blunt manner might keep you from commanding a ship in space. Silly me.”

Graves smiled back at him. “I’ve never hidden anything from you, Jared, and I’m not going to start now. We’re critically short of experienced officers. It’s time to start vetting the men and women from Spear and Shadow.

“We didn’t have enough leaders when we crewed Courageous. Now the officers and men from one destroyer are making do on a superdreadnought and a battlecruiser. Soon to be two battlecruisers. We’re spread too thin. You need to put those people to use and I mean right now.”

Just the problem he’d been wrestling with, but not the solution he’d wanted to hear. “I appreciate your forthrightness. I know we’re shorthanded, but we can’t afford to trust them.”

The young captain leaned forward earnestly. “We can’t afford not to. Jared, those men are Fleet officers. Did some of them willfully mutiny? Probably. They supported Breckenridge. Are you going to hold that against an ensign or lieutenant who was just following orders?

“I know damned well that I’d have had a hard time telling a full captain he was wrong when I was a junior officer under his command, unlawful orders or no. Commander Meyer took a stand against Breckenridge and that was brave as hell.

“No matter how this turns out, his career is probably over. Who wants a man at his back that might put a knife in it? Can you blame others who might have disagreed from keeping their heads down?”

Sean Meyer, Spear’s executive officer, had broken Kelsey and Jared out of confinement on the heavy cruiser. He’d stayed behind to make sure their escape back to Courageous was successful. He’d been in Spear’s brig when the AI-controlled ships had crippled the heavy cruiser. Now he was a prisoner on the planet below.

Jared sighed. “I know, but it’s hard to trust people that fooled you once.”

Graves nodded. “Then start with the officers from Shadow. They didn’t cross us like the ones from Spear did. And the lower ranking officers on both ships won’t gang up to stage a mutiny. That just leaves the senior officers from Spear. A few dozen men and women. With appropriate watchdogs, they won’t be a threat. Tag them with trusted monitors. They should know they’re on probation, but we need them desperately.”

Jared took a deep breath and nodded. “You’re right. We’ll scatter them throughout the task force and use them. But no command positions.”

Graves smiled. “That’s really all I’d hoped to achieve. Courageous and Invincible can monitor them, even in their quarters. We can make that plain enough to them as a condition of their probation.”

“Well, now that you’ve set me straight,” Jared said, “is that all you needed? How’s your ship?”

“Courageous is battle worthy. Or, as close to it as we can manage in the short term. A third of her missile tubes are offline or obliterated. Roughly the same percentage of beam weapons are gone. Her drives and battle screens are in good shape, though.”

Jared compressed his lips. “Invincible is in about the same shape. A little worse, actually. We really need to get the construction yards back into commission. Scott Pond is a floating wreck.”

They’d recovered Scott Pond from the floating graveyard of ships left over from the rebellion half a millennium ago. The rebels had destroyed her flip drives when they killed her crew. After her most recent combat, her grav drives were at less than thirty percent. Most of the ship was in vacuum, so they hadn’t manned her. Calling her a wreck was being generous.

The task force was in as precarious a position as it could be. If they hadn’t plugged the system’s flip points, the next Rebel Empire visitor could sweep them off the table.

He and Charlie chatted a while longer before Jared stood and ended the meeting. “Thanks for telling me what I needed to hear, Charlie. Take charge of getting those officers back to work.”

Graves climbed slowly to his feet. “What about the negotiations? Are we making any progress on getting our people back?”

“Not that you’d notice. Those people are remarkably stubborn. I’ll talk with their representative again tomorrow. This time, she’s coming up here. I can’t imagine why they’d continue antagonizing the people in charge of the orbital bombardment weapons.”

“Does it really matter why? They want to take control of their system. Something we can’t let them do. We want our people. Something they apparently aren’t willing to grant without getting what they want. This doesn’t end cleanly.”

“Probably not,” Jared admitted, “but we have to try.”

Graves headed for the hatch. “Maybe your Rebel Empire prisoner can shed some light on the dilemma.”

Jared doubted it. Lieutenant Commander Michael Richards, the Rebel Empire Fleet officer they’d captured at Erorsi, was much less trusting of Jared than he was of Kelsey. Still, it was worth a try. What did he have to lose?

“I’ll talk to him. Keep me up to date on the integration efforts.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Pardon the interruption,” Invincible said after Graves had left. “Kelsey has just requested a full medical team to her location.”

Jared cursed under his breath. “I knew it. What’s the medical emergency? Is she injured?”

“Negative. It seems she’s found a functional stasis unit with a gravely injured person inside. Based on the ongoing conversation she’s having with Doctor Stone, I suspect that the doctor will take a team to join her shortly.”

“Let Lily know that she’s cleared to take whoever she needs with her. And to keep me in the loop.”

* * * * *

Kelsey watched doctors Stone and Guzman working around the stasis unit. The engineering team from Ginnie Dare had restored life support in this section of the ship and made certain the fusion plants were stable.

Not that they’d been unstable, but a power failure right now could kill the injured man.

Kelsey had snagged the revival process from the stasis unit. It wasn’t complex. She remembered how Reginald Bell had said this was cutting edge stuff.

It was. He’d also said that the units couldn’t keep someone alive for several centuries without adjustments, but he was wrong. This unit was self-regulating. It would maintain the patient’s condition for as long as it had power.

Lily Stone looked over at Kelsey. “We’re about as ready as we’ll ever be. I want to caution you again not to be too hopeful. From what I can see, this man was so badly injured that they put him in as a last ditch effort. He might be brain dead.”

“We owe it to him to try,” Kelsey said. “If he’s alive, what are his chances?”

Justin Guzman shook his head. “Not good. At the very least, he’s suffered significant damage to his frontal lobe. Let me second what Lily said. This poor man is almost certainly gone.”

“We’ll pull him out and make the call,” Lily said. “If there’s a chance, we’ll get him to Ginnie Dare. We’ll do everything humanly possible.”

Kelsey knew that. She had to get her hopes under control. “Okay.”

The doctors had her shift to the side and positioned the crash team around the stasis unit. They’d leap into action as soon as the field came down, giving every bit of life support to the injured man they could.

“Ready,” Lily said.

Kelsey sent the command to shut off the unit. She felt the protective field come down.

The doctors sprang into action as soon as the hatch slid aside. They pulled the gurney out and everyone bent over the man, attaching instruments and support equipment. One of the machines began wailing.

“No heartbeat!” Guzman said. “Give him ten units of—”

“Wait,” Stone said, straightening slowly. “His skull is crushed. There’s no brain function.” She turned to Kelsey. “I’m sorry. He’s dead. All this machine did was keep his body from decaying.”

The disappointment was like a punch to her gut. Kelsey sagged. “God. I know I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up, but this seemed like karma.”

The medical team stepped back and allowed Doctor Leonard and his teen henchman, Carl Owlet, access to the body. They slid a headset over the man’s mangled cranium. Kelsey could now see that there’d never been a chance for the dead man.

Leonard glanced back at her. “His implants are still active.”

Owlet tapped the keys on the portable unit. “We’re downloading everything in the implant’s memory and storage.”

They all stood there watching until Owlet nodded. “Download complete. Starting comparison. Well, he has more data than you had on day one. A lot more.”

“What kind of data?” she asked.

“It’s encrypted. Let me see if I can determine what kind of protection it has.”

Lily put her hand on Kelsey’s shoulder. “You tried. That’s more than the poor bastard had a right to expect after the Fall. Don’t beat yourself up.”

Once the medical team had taken the body and left, the room felt empty. No matter what they salvaged, Kelsey felt as though they’d failed the man.

“Huh,” Owlet said.

“What?” She looked over his shoulder, but the screens full of gobbledygook made no sense to her.

“His implants have the same operating code as yours. The encrypted data seems to be something else. I know you can record video, so maybe that’s what these files are. If so, there are a lot of them.”

“Can’t you tell? You downloaded the data from me.”

He shrugged. “You didn’t protect it. I can keep trying to crack the encryption, but it’ll take time.”

“Could it be hardware specific? Maybe he set it up like the ship’s computer. Only someone with the right implants could view it. I hope it doesn’t need an extra code. That would suck.”

The young computer genius looked uncertain. “It’s possible, but there’s only one way to check.”

Doctor Leonard shook his head emphatically. “We have no idea what these files are. Uploading any of them to your implant storage could be dangerous. The size of these files taken together is staggering. They would fill three quarters of your available storage.”

“One file,” she said. “Let’s see if I can access it.”

The older man sighed. “You’re taking an enormous risk. That file could be anything. A virus, even.”

“There’s no need for someone to have spent so much effort laying a trap. That in itself argues that this is important and probably harmless.”

The scientist threw up his hands. “Fine! One file. A small one!”

She accessed the computer and selected the file with the oldest timestamp. It was relatively small, but still of enough size to maybe be a video.

Once she had it in her implant storage, she probed it. The encryption code was relatively easy to figure out. It was the dead man’s implant serial number. She was certain that telling Owlet about that would earn her yet another lecture about computer security and why she should pick inconvenient and incomprehensible passwords. As she unlocked the file, it became obvious why that was more secure than it seemed. The vid required Marine Raider implants to view it.

Marine Raider implants weren’t that different from those of their Fleet brethren, but they had linkages dedicated to the expanded hardware Kelsey had. That made them operationally more complex. And different enough to be a good security feature, it seemed.

With both those conditions met, she was able to play the implant recording.

The medical bay vanished and she was standing on a hilltop. The sun setting in the distance was shaded more orange than yellow and it was significantly larger than those she’d seen before. The air was heavy with some kind of spicy overtone.

A marine pinnace sat in the valley below with men bustling around it. They were unloading small crates.


The voice at her elbow almost made her jump out of her skin, but the video perspective shifted smoothly to show her a grizzled man in a camouflaged uniform. Unlike marine battledress, his didn’t even have subdued rank tabs.

“Not really, sir.” The voice seemed to come from her, so she knew it had to be the dead man. “I can’t imagine how anyone expects to be able to rebel against the Empire. This whole situation has to be blown out of proportion.”

The older man nodded. “Probably. Still, what I’m hearing sounds grim. If someone really figured out how to override our implants, that could be a real nightmare scenario.”

The dead man nodded. “I think that’s unlikely, but times like this make me wonder. I figure the best thing I can do is focus on my job.”

The other man turned toward the valley. “How are your people holding up?”

“They’re fine. We’ll be done here in less than an hour and then we’re heading back up to Persephone. We’re relocating deeper into the Empire to check on this threat. I guess I’ll know soon enough how bad it is.”

The older man clapped the dead man on the shoulder. “Don’t let it worry you, Ned. The Empire has beaten the odds before. We’ll come out fine this time, too. I’m done with my part of the mission here, so I’ll head back to my pinnace. We’ll have a beer in a few months, after all this is done.”

“Take care, Major. If I find out anything useful, I’ll try to get word to you.”

The major gripped the dead man’s shoulder for a moment and walked off.

The video ended and Kelsey found herself standing back in the medical bay. Both scientists were staring at her and Leonard had his communications unit in his hand.

“What happened?” the scientist demanded.

“Nothing much. It was an implant vid file.”

“I almost called the medical team back,” the older man grumbled. “Don’t do that to my poor heart.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “The file was encrypted so that only someone with Marine Raider implants and the dead man’s implant serial number could unlock it. I saw a scene with him speaking to another man. I think our dead man’s name is Ned and this ship might be Persephone. How many files are there?”

“Millions,” Owlet said. “Some small, some really large. With the hardware lockout, I can’t determine what they do.”

“No, but I can,” Kelsey said. “This could be a treasure trove of critical information. It doesn’t seem harmful. Upload it to my implant storage and I can work on it as time permits.”

The two men looked at one another with resigned expressions.

“What?” she asked.

“You know this will get us in trouble,” Leonard said. “Admiral Mertz will be quite annoyed.”

“Then he can take it up with me. Come on. Give me the files.”

“I know I’m going to regret this,” the elderly scientist muttered.

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