Ghosts of Empire – Chapter Two

Commander Sean Meyer woke abruptly. The dark shadow of a man hovered over him. The figure had a hand over Sean’s mouth, not to smother, but to keep him from crying out and waking everyone in the prison bunkroom.

He nodded to show the man that he was awake. Frankly, he’d half-expected someone to attack him before now. Many of these men and women had been under his authority just a week ago. Before he’d betrayed their captain. He’d heard more than a few muttered curses and everyone had avoided him like the plague.

The man tugged on Sean’s arm and guided him toward the men’s shower room without a word of explanation. Sean was more than a bit surprised when the man began stripping, with every sign of taking a very early morning shower.

He did the same, hoping this wasn’t some convoluted plan to kill him.

Two men were already in the shower and steam covered every worn surface. They’d been cleaning the buildings, so the smell of old age and lingering rot was beginning to fade.

The sound of the rushing water was loud in his ears. Loud enough to conceal a murder, if the men were so inclined. A conspicuously open spot for Sean stood between the two men. His guide moved away from them and turned on the water at the far side of the room.

In the dim light, Sean recognized his guide as an enlisted man from Spear’s marine complement. One of the two older men waiting for Sean was Spear’s senior enlisted man, Command Master Chief Ulysses Ross. He didn’t know the other man.

“Command Master Chief,” he said as he stripped and took his assigned place. He turned the water on and adjusted it until it was as hot as he could stand. If he was going to be naked in the shower, he might as well enjoy it.

“No ranks,” the bald man said. “We think the showers are safe, but I’m not willing to take unnecessary risks, Sean.”

“I understand, Ulysses. I was pretty sure no one wanted to talk to me, so I’m surprised to see you.”

Ross gave him a cool smile. “Yeah, well, we find ourselves in odd times. You and the boss had a disagreement. Without going into specifics, I’d like you to explain that to us. Oh, my friend is Albert Newland. Al did the same job as me on Shadow.”

Shadow had been the heavy cruiser Spear’s consort before the Rebel Empire had destroyed the light cruiser. Now both vessels were gone.

So, the two senior enlisted men among the prisoners wanted to have a private chat with Spear’s disgraced executive officer. He’d find out soon enough if it was for good or ill.

“Well, Wallace and I did have some words. I told him I thought he was making a mistake in the strongest of terms.”

Ross snorted. “That you did. You took something he wanted very badly and gave it away.”

“He had no right to take it in the first place. Look, I knew the penalty for crossing him and I’m more than willing to pay the price for it. Still, that seems a little off topic, considering our current circumstances.”

He’d been in the brig when the AIs’ forces had attacked Spear. The machines had slain or stunned anyone who resisted. They’d cut him out of his cell and herded him with the enlisted prisoners. An understandable mistake, since Captain Breckenridge had ripped Sean’s rank tabs off with his own hands.

The machines drove the prisoners into a large cargo hold and Breckenridge had ordered them only to give their name and serial number if questioned. Nothing else. The officers had quickly gotten rid of their rank tabs, perhaps thinking that would keep the AI from targeting them for enhanced interrogation. Officers were more likely to know how to get back to the Terran Empire.

All of them knew what was at risk. If word slipped out, the Terran Empire would die.

The AI hadn’t spared Spear’s wounded, either. The medical staff did what they could to save as many as possible, but many died. At least everyone was conscious and knew not to tell the AI anything.

The machines herded the enlisted people onto ships and brought them to this planet. Apparently the AI had known who was an officer based on their rank tabs the moment it had captured them. So much for the subterfuge.

Sean had only seen one other officer among the men and women. Shadow’s critically injured captain, Paul Cooley. He’d been awake when the machines had brought him into the hold, but had lapsed into unconsciousness by the time they’d started for the planet.

Based on the severity of his injuries, Sean wouldn’t be surprised if the man had died, though the people on the planet had whisked the wounded away once they landed, supposedly to a medical facility.

They’d sent Sean and the rest to this old military base. They were on an island, but that was about all they knew. Their captors weren’t interested in talking to them. Other than guard patrols and a daily landing under heavy guard to drop off some of the nastiest rations he’d ever tasted, they ignored the prisoners.

“That can be sorted out in time,” Ross continued. “It’s above my pay grade, in any case. What I want to know is why you disobeyed orders. The real reason. I know you didn’t think so highly of the things you gave back.”

“You’re wrong,” Sean said flatly. “I valued one of them very much. So much that I couldn’t stand to see how Wallace treated it. The second thing was more valuable than Wallace gave it credit for, but the first was a matter of principle I couldn’t let pass.”

Captain Breckenridge had taken Princess Kelsey and Commander Mertz prisoner. If it had only been Mertz, Sean would’ve probably let things go, but he couldn’t allow his captain to take the second in line to the Imperial Throne hostage. It was unthinkable. So, he’d acted.

Ross gave him a hard look and then nodded. “That’s about what I expected you’d say. I’ve never known you to be disloyal, but the boss put you in a hard spot. Hell, he put us all into a difficult situation.

“Without any officers here to provide guidance, I took it on myself to speak with the others in enlisted leadership positions. You might’ve been in the brig when this all went down, but as far as we’re concerned, that’s a problem for others to sort out later. We’d like you to resume your duties.”

Newland nodded. “Several of our people overheard two guards talking about some unknown ships taking out the AIs. One of them mentioned Mertz. You’ve met the man. Do you think he might have turned the tables on those mechanical bastards?”

Sean blinked in surprise. Mertz was a capable man, but he only had one undermanned battlecruiser. Yes, it was a powerful ship, but…

He put that thought out of his head. “Mertz is more resourceful than we gave him credit for. Is it possible? Maybe. I’m not sure how it helps us down here, though.”

“It might not,” Ross said. “We won’t know until someone actually talks to us. When that time comes, I think you should be our point man. As the senior prisoner, you need to take the conversation to them. Let them know you’re the force master chief. We’ll back your play.”

Sean nodded. “Has everyone been told I’ll be resuming my duties?”

“Not yet, but they’ll hear about it before dawn. Time to dry off and head back to our barracks. I’m developing permanent wrinkles.”

* * * * *

“Let me take you inside” Kelsey told Coulter. “The edges aren’t a threat to suit integrity that way.”

The marine noncom nodded. “I’ll go first. Form up for quick entry everyone.”

He disconnected himself from the line and floated free of the hull. He’d turned off his magnetic boots.

Kelsey followed suit and grabbed him. It only took a moment to bring them over the opening with her suit’s grav generator. Their lights played inside the ship. The cone of destruction led right to the hole on the opposite side. At its widest, the wound was over a dozen meters across. Even after all this time, there was still some debris floating in the damaged area.

“Yeah,” she said. “Something small and going very fast blew through this ship. Probably an asteroid. It doesn’t look like a missile hit or a beam blast. This is purely kinetic.”

Her original plan had been to push him inside, but the number of sharp objects made that too risky. “I’ll take you all the way in. Maybe we can open the lock from the inside.”

“No.” he said. “Bring everyone in. We’ll start exploring from the central corridor. I can see that it’s open on both sides.”

“That’s boring,” she whined in her best ten-year-old girl voice. “Okay. You stay right there once I drop you off.”

It only took a few minutes to get them all inside. They split up, with some of them going aft while the remainder went toward the bow. As small as the ship was, it wouldn’t take long to search.

The interior lights were on, as was the gravity. That indicated the ship still had power. Since they hadn’t detected the fusion plants, even at pointblank range, the designers had shielded them devilishly well. Considering that breaches in the hull should’ve made the detection inevitable, this ship had even better shielding than Invincible.

Kelsey decided to go with the bow team. There were no indications of combat inside the ship. Things were surprisingly neat and orderly. The dead Fleet personnel they found were in vacuum suits. Based on their expressions, they’d died relatively peacefully in places of their own choosing.

Coulter examined the dead as they went. “These people weren’t under AI control. No beards or long hair. The AIs aren’t big on personal hygiene.”

She knew that far too well. The Pale Ones still featured prominently in her frequent nightmares.

“One other thing,” he said. “The emergency doors are wide open. Was there a systems failure or was that intentional?”

“Considering the lack of things blown around, I’d say intentional. Maybe we’ll find out what happened when we get to the bridge.”

That didn’t take long. More men and women in Fleet vacuum suits sat at the controls. They seemed to have died peacefully as well. A quick check of the consoles found them all locked.

“Sergeant Coulter, Princess Kelsey, this is Corporal Brand. I’m in engineering. I’m no tech, but I’m only seeing grav drives and fusion plants.”

She frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense. The ship has flip vanes.”

“Maybe the impact took the flip drives out,” Coulter said. “This isn’t a very big ship. The grav drives need to be in the stern, but the flip drives can be anywhere inside the hull. They’re normally in engineering, but that’s a matter of convenience.”

“That would’ve sucked,” Kelsey said. “Trapped in whatever system you were in when everything went down the crapper. Maybe we can access the computer and find out. Let’s get the techs.”

It wasn’t difficult finding the airlock. It opened easily from the inside.

The techs came on board and spread throughout the ship. She followed the computer expert to where they’d found the computer adjacent to the bridge. It wasn’t as massive as the one aboard Courageous, but it wasn’t tiny, either.”

“It’s still powered,” the tech declared,” but it’s not responding to my attempts to access it.”

“Let me have a try.” Kelsey used her implants to find the computer interface and attempted to connect. It promptly rejected her, but this time it gave her a reason.

Access denied. Implant codes not recognized.

My name is Kelsey Bandar. I’m an ambassador plenipotentiary of the Terran Empire. Here are my authorization codes.

This unit does not recognize your authority, Ambassador Plenipotentiary Kelsey Bandar. This unit is restricted to access only by certain personnel.

She considered how to respond to that. There were other avenues to gain access. She just needed to know what it was looking for.

Can you clarify what type of authorization is acceptable?

Only personnel with correct access codes and appropriate hardware may access this unit without authorization.

Perhaps I have the correct hardware. Why not? She had every other kind of equipment inside her.

Kelsey gasped as the computer probed her implants. At least the intrusion was quick.

You have the correct hardware, but lack the required access codes.

She considered how best to explain the situation. Over five hundred years have passed since the rebellion. The Terran Empire still exists, but we’re only just beginning to recover. Does my hardware grant me a more detailed explanation? Perhaps I can clarify things to your satisfaction. What hardware are you checking, by the way?

You possess Marine Raider implants. This vessel is a Raider strike ship. You do not possess the required Raider access codes, however.

Her heart soared. A commando ship with a computer that could explain her implants to her! This was exactly what she needed!

As I have the hardware, will you grant me provisional access?

Negative. Without the appropriate Marine Raider codes, this unit may not grant you access. Warning. Unauthorized access of this unit will cause it to self-destruct.

It was as though it knew that she’d be tempted to get around the restrictions. So much for the easy way.

She turned to Coulter. “This is a commando ship. Or, as the computer calls them, Marine Raiders. It won’t give me access. Once again, I’m stuck without an easy way to get the information I need.”

“Princess Kelsey, this is Corporal Brand again. We found something else you need to see. Can you come down to the medical center?”

Medical center might have been too gracious a term. It was maybe twice the size of her old quarters on Athena. There were a few beds and one cramped operating theater.

The latter showed the first mess that she’d seen on the ship. The table had a few large smears of dried blood and the scattered instruments made it look as though a hurried operation had just ended.

There was also one large piece of equipment that the marines had gathered around.

“What do you have?” she asked.

“I’m not sure, but there’s someone in there,” Brand said.

Kelsey looked through the port and there was indeed a man lying on a gurney inside. He had terrible injuries to his head and face. She could see the graphene coating his skull. Since only commandos had that particular enhancement, he must be one. Unlike the other bodies on the ship, he wasn’t a desiccated husk.

Shocked, she checked the equipment with her implants. It was a stasis unit. The same kind of machinery that had kept Reginald Bell alive for hundreds of years. And it was running.

“Dear God,” she said. “He’s still alive. We’ve found an Imperial commando.”

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