Veil of Shadows – Chapter Two

Commander Jared Mertz tried to focus on the reports awaiting his attention, but it was hard. His office looked deceptively normal, neat as always with the holos of his mother and various landscapes from Jaxton on the grey walls. Within these bulkheads, he could fool himself for a little while. But that was a lie.

Battle damage had irrevocably crippled his ship, twisting her very spine beyond repair. Any attempt to move her at more than a crawl risked tearing her apart. She’d never return to Avalon.

That hadn’t stopped Dennis Baxter from restoring life support to all areas. Even so, the scent of scorched plastics and fried circuitry hovered in the air. The chief engineer even had her weapons systems back online. Yet, they’d still need to abandon her.

That was the least of his sorrows. The battles with the Pale Ones had cost him eighty-seven crewmen out of two hundred and eighty. Thirty percent of his people had perished. Over a hundred more were in various hospitals on Pentagar.

The pain and loss ate at him. He had trouble sleeping, and when he could, the nightmares always woke him early. He’d have to get some sleep meds before long.

A rap at the hatch pulled him out of his black mood. Baxter stood there, his blue jumpsuit stained with something dark brown. “Got a few minutes, Captain?”

“Sure. What can I do to help? You need an extra wrench hand?”

The sandy-haired officer sat in the chair beside the desk with a sigh. “I can’t spare the three people it would take to fix what you broke. All primary systems are back online. That begs the question, what next?”

Jared rubbed his face tiredly. “Damned if I know. We can’t just give her to the Pentagarans without authorization from Fleet. But we can’t take her with us either.”

The engineer nodded. “I’ve been giving that some thought. Hell, I’ve been giving a lot of things some thought. Athena will never boost at more than a fraction of her best speed, but she can move under her own power. After some simulations, I’ve determined that she can safely flip, as long as she’s stationary. Why not use her as a training platform and to transport cargo between Pentagar and the system with Courageous?”

Jared considered that plan. “It would allow better access to the other system. It’s a pain to have to bring Best Deal back to the flip point every time we need to bring someone across. And it will be useful until the Pentagarans get their first flip-capable ships ready to go. Which will be at least six months, according to Commodore Sanders.”

“Maybe not. Sure, the ships built for it from the ground up will take six months, but I’ve been working with Engineer First Williams. I think we can retrofit some larger ships with flip drives. They won’t be very sturdy and they’ll lose a lot of internal space, but we can bring them online in a month or so.”

Jared felt a weight lift off his shoulders. “That’s excellent news. The last thing we need is another invasion before we’re ready. How much do you think the refits will hinder those ships’ effectiveness?”

“They’ll need a lot of maintenance and some external equipment that will reduce their maneuverability. It’ll also cut into their magazine size, so they won’t have the sustained firepower they do today. That said, they could occupy the flip point in the Pale Ones’ system and shoot up any vessels that approach. Then flip back to this side and let the other ships take on any intruders. Based on the damage we did to the Pale Ones, I don’t expect they’d be able to take that flip point away from the Pentagarans. If we can destroy the shipyards, they won’t be a threat at all.”

Jared leaned back in his chair. “If only it was that simple. The Pale Ones must have other systems they can call on for help. Our probes found two other flip points in their system. One is a weak flip point, so they probably don’t know about it. The other one leads back to the Old Empire. We cannot assume they have no reserves, but we don’t dare send a probe through either of those flip points until we’re ready to follow them up with armed ships.”

Flip points—or more technically Osborne-Levinson Bridges—were flaws in the fabric of space-time that linked one area of space with another. A ship with the right engines could flip instantaneously from one planetary system to another hundreds of light years away. Their discovery had led to the creation of the Old Empire. And its eventual destruction.

The weak flip points were a relatively new discovery. Flip points with drastically weaker gravitic fields. Until the scientists with Jared’s expedition had confirmed their existence, they’d only been theoretical. And without the new breed of scanner technology they’d brought with them on the exploratory expedition, undetectable. The Old Empire, and by extrapolation the Pale Ones, didn’t know they existed.

They were also dangerous. Jared had brought his ships through one after they’d detected Courageous’ distress beacon, only to discover that it was a one-way trip. Leaving them no way home that didn’t pass through space controlled by the Pale Ones.

“So, you’d like more options?” Baxter asked, drawing Jared out of his thoughts.

“I’m willing to consider anything that doesn’t leave us sitting here like targets.”

“What if I could give you a flip-capable warship sooner than that? One of our very own.”

“Do I need to paint myself red and dance naked on the Palace lawn at dawn? I can do that.”

Baxter laughed. “I’d rather you didn’t. No, I’m talking about Courageous.”

Jared opened his mouth to say something dismissive and paused. “You’re joking.”

“I’m totally serious. They’ve restored internal power and patched the hull. My engineers report that the damage to the primary systems seems repairable. I’m not promising success, but I think that ship might fly again.”

“I find that very hard to believe.” The Old Empire battlecruiser had been damaged and completely dead in space when they’d found her. A frozen coffin on the verge of self-destruction.

The engineer nodded. “I did too, until I looked at the details in the reports. The Old Empire built their systems to last and stored their spares very well. I believe it is possible to restore her.”

“What about her main computer? I can’t see that ship being of much use without the advanced systems built to fly and fight her.”

“That is one roadblock. We’ve isolated it and brought it online. It seems to be operational, but it’s entirely unresponsive to our attempts to communicate.”

“We need the computer to run the ship, don’t we?”

Baxter shrugged. “The consoles have a manual mode, so it must be possible to fly the ship without the computer. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, so I’d prefer getting the main computer back online.”

The chief engineer smiled. “And we might have a way to contact the computer and do exactly that. I just got word that Princess Kelsey made contact with the machine that implanted her. She told it to allow Doc Stone access and it’s talking. If she can do that to a machine that was under the control of the Pale Ones, she might be able to do it on Courageous.”

That news was unexpected. Jared had been thinking in terms of how the events of this last week had hurt his half-sister, not how those changes might help them. This opened up a completely new set of possibilities.

“I need to go talk to her, then. I also need to discuss any plans with Commodore Sanders. If we decide to move Athena, how much notice do you need?”

“We can boost at your command. We don’t even need a helm officer. We’d be accelerating so slowly that I could handle everything from the engineering consoles.”

Jared rose to his feet. “Good work. I like what I’m hearing enough to give it a tentative green light. How long to move Athena to the flip point?”

“At our best speed? At least three days. Perhaps four.”

That was a crawl. The flip point had only been a few hours away from Pentagar at maximum acceleration before the battle damage. Still, it was better than nothing. “I’ll let you know when I’m certain the Pentagarans are good with the plan. I know. This is a Fleet ship and they can’t tell us what to do, but let’s be realistic. This is their system and I don’t want to surprise them.”

“You’re the boss.” Baxter rose to his feet and headed for the hatch. “Give the word and we start moving.”

Jared thought about this new plan for a moment. Was it the right decision? Maybe not, but it was certainly more interesting than sitting on his butt waiting for other people to save them. If things didn’t work out, they were no worse off than if they didn’t make the attempt.

He had the duty officer open a channel to the Royal Pentagaran Fleet dreadnaught Mace. Commodore Sanders came on the channel a moment later. “What can I do for you, Lord Captain?”

Jared still had difficulty with the title they’d given him because the Terran emperor was his biological father. Back home it wasn’t made so…obvious.

“I’m on my way down to Pentagar, Commodore. Commander Baxter informs me that he has Athena in the best condition he can manage. He says it can even flip, if it’s stationary.” He filled the flag officer in on what Baxter wanted to do in converting the destroyer into a ferry.

The older man nodded as soon as he got the gist of the concept. “That sounds like an excellent use of resources and it keeps your ship under your control. I have no objection, of course.”

Jared hadn’t been expecting him to have an issue with the plan. “Baxter figured it would be useful in training your people in how to control and maintain a flip drive while you’re building your new ships. He told me about the refit program, too. Are you getting everything you need from my people?”

“Indeed. The exotic elements your people provided did the trick. We’re able to make all the components to a space-time drive now. They also tell me that the elements are available in Courageous’ system. Once we can get some ships there to mine the asteroid belt we’ll be in fine shape. You’ve released us from our cage. Thank you.”

Jared smiled. “It’s my pleasure. That leads me to the other thing we’ve decided to try.” He filled the commodore in on Baxter’s plan to renovate Courageous.

The other man looked even more skeptical than Jared had felt earlier. “That’s a very farfetched idea. Do you think it has a chance of working?”

“I’m not sure. If it doesn’t, we’re no worse off for trying it. If the flip drive works once, we have Courageous in this system. If it really works, we’ll possibly have a new ship.”

“Forgive me, but with so many of your people injured or dead, can you control an unfamiliar ship in questionable condition?”

A stab of pain shot through Jared. He imagined the losses would weigh on him for a long time. “Courageous’ Fleet complement was just over three hundred, but that was manning the ship for battle. I’d like to propose a kind of joint effort. You send along several hundred men and women from the Royal Fleet and we’ll try this together. By the time we’re ready to attempt bringing Courageous back to Pentagar, what’s left of my crew should be fit for duty. At the very least, we’ll all learn a lot about the Old Empire technology.”

Sanders chewed his lip. “Are you talking about making your people like Princess Bandar so that you can run the ship?”

Jared shook his head. “No. I doubt my people would be willing to go that far.”

“How is your sister’s recovery proceeding?” The concern in the commodore’s voice was very touching.

“I’m told she mangled several rehabilitation machines and ripped a support bar out of the floor this morning.”

Sanders winced. “Remind me not to shake her hand. How about emotionally?”

“She blames herself. I denied it, but she knows that I’d have come up with a less risky plan if she hadn’t been in their hands. She sees the blood of all those people and she will for the rest of her life.”

“Not to diminish your losses, but such a lesson may prevent her from making a much worse decision further down the line. She might one day sit on the Imperial Throne of your people. At the very least, she is a powerful noblewoman. She needs to know what being responsible for life and death is like.”

Jared pursed his lips. “That’s a hard lesson, Commodore. One I’m still coming to grips with myself.”

The older man leaned forward. “Forgive me, Lord Captain, but you’re a Fleet officer. You might never have fought a real battle before, but you realized the possibilities. You chose to act in the manner that might best achieve your goals. And even with the loss of all those people, you succeeded. That is what it means to be a combat commander. Of which, I might add, you’re a fine example.”

“Thank you. You’re right, of course. I’ll give the order to move the ship to the flip point. It would be best if you detached an escort for them.”

“Of course. When it comes time to go over, I plan to accompany you. I simply must see Courageous for myself. And rank does have its privileges.”

“We’ll be happy to have you, sir.”

Jared ended the conversation and started the new plan in motion.

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