The Terra Gambit – Book Eight of The Empire of Bones Saga

The Terra Gambit

Sent on a mission critical to the survival of the New Terran Empire, Jared Mertz must travel deep into the AI-dominated Rebel Empire on an operation of deception.

Only there are games afoot that no one could foresee and players at the table that no one could expect. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

When unexpected enemies deal themselves in, Jared must bet everything on a single hand. Bluffing might get him killed but folding isn’t an option.

If you love military science fiction and grand adventure on a galaxy-spanning scale, grab The Terra Gambit and the rest of The Empire of Bones Saga today!

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Chapter One


“I left her there,” Jared Mertz said. “This is my fault.”

“Have you met my daughter?” Emperor Karl Bandar of the New Terran Empire asked his son. “Kelsey has a streak of what we’ll generously call impulsiveness. If she thinks she has a better plan than you, she’s likely to execute it and then beg forgiveness while you pick up the pieces.”

Jared stared at his father for a moment and then laughed softly. “I suppose you’re right. Still, I should’ve seen this coming. I let her talk me into leading the attack on the Dresden orbital to recover the data on manufacturing the Marine Raider implants. I figured they’d be in and gone before trouble came looking for them, but I was wrong. Again.”

The two of them were sitting in the Emperor’s private quarters at the Imperial Palace, sipping on aged whiskey. Jared had left his task force at the sealed Erorsi flip point a day ago and come home alone to report.

Based on the FTL probes they’d deployed as they’d fled the Rebel Empire, the enemy had only been about twelve hours behind them when they’d transitioned to Erorsi and put the flip-point jammer there back into service.

Even though he’d destroyed the FTL probes as his fleet had fled, he’d decided to leave the ones in the system just past Erorsi intact. He positioned them far enough out to avoid any chance of detection and could always send the self-destruct signal if anyone seemed to have detected them.

Jared had waited in the Erorsi system with his fleet in case the Rebel Empire made a concerted attempt to force their way through, but they hadn’t. The FTL probes didn’t have the best view of the enemy using passive scans at extremely long range, but he could tell that most of the Rebel Empire ships were setting up around the Erorsi flip point.

Based on the amount of debris that had come through, they’d sent several waves of probes to test his defenses. No ships had attempted to flip, so the complete lack of response had spooked them. That wouldn’t last.

The flip-point jammer set up a gravitational resonance in the wormholes that allowed travel between star systems up to hundreds of light years apart. Nothing had survived the transit. Eventually, they’d figure out what he was doing and then the real fun would start.

Eventually his people would have to take the flip-point jammer down for maintenance, but that day was over a month away. He’d worry about that once he had no other choice.

“We’ll just have to hope she finds another way home,” the emperor said. “I have every confidence in Kelsey’s resourcefulness. Besides, she has Commodore Anderson and Audacious to help her get the technology home.

“The Raider implants might be the most useful militarily, but learning how to build AIs could help win this war. That would make all the trouble worthwhile.”

The fact that the Dresden Orbital had held facilities to build sentient AIs had been a game-changing surprise. One they couldn’t pass up. Kelsey had stolen the entire orbital with a ship used to transport large vessels that couldn’t move themselves and fled in the only direction open to her.

The Fleet carrier and swarms of fighters in her belly would make for a very stout defense as well as an improbably strong arm of attack. Jared knew the Rebel Empire didn’t use fighters. It would be a very unpleasant surprise for anyone that chanced across his sister.

“For the time being, Erorsi is secure,” Jared said. “The downside is that they know exactly where to find us now. They’re going to build up quite a Fleet element on the other side of the Erorsi flip point and they’ll keep probing it.

“Sooner or later, they’re going to catch us while we’re performing maintenance on the flip-point jammer. Then they’re going to come through and try to swamp us.”

His father nodded. “We’ll keep your entire task force there. In fact, we’ll transfer as many ships and fixed defenses as we can from Harrison’s World to back them up. That’s going to leave Commodore Meyer shorthanded, but such is life.”

Sean Meyer had once been executive officer for one of the worst Fleet commanders Jared had ever met. Meyer could be arrogant and condescending. To his pleasure, Jared had discovered the commodore was also an exceptionally capable man.

“He’ll manage. I’ll make certain that Erorsi stays secure.”

“Actually, you won’t. I have a different mission in mind for you.”

Jared raised an eyebrow and sipped his drink. “What might that be, Majesty?”

“I thought I told you not to use titles when we’re alone.”

“When you start giving orders, this isn’t a social call anymore.”

Karl Bandar laughed. “You’re an interesting mix of contradictions, Jared. While I certainly believe we need to keep Erorsi secure, we also have another very important mission that requires the most capable commander possible.”

“You mean sending a destroyer from Harrison’s World to give an annual status report to the AIs?”

Jared and his original makeshift force had managed to ambush and defeat the artificial intelligence controlling the Harrison’s World system. He’d very much like to keep the other Rebel Empire AIs in the dark about the change in management.

The AI had been housed inside an old Fleet sector base called Boxer Station. After the civil war that had destroyed the Old Empire, the triumphant AIs had brought all the wrecked ships that had survived the fighting to orbit the station and created a gigantic graveyard.

He and his people had worked with the leadership on Harrison’s World to bring the repair bays at the station back online. That allowed them to begin recovering and restoring the ships that were least damaged. Even the first of those had provided a very powerful fighting force for the New Terran Empire and their allies, the Pentagarans.

The crown princess of Pentagar—Elise Orison—was Jared’s wife and he wished he’d had the opportunity to spend more time with her after his return from the Rebel Empire, but he’d had to make do with just one night of her coming to visit him in Erorsi.

She wouldn’t be pleased to learn the emperor was sending him away again so soon.

“Understood,” Jared said. “So far as I know, the automated destroyer the Harrison’s World AI sent to report every year goes to a specific system and transmits a very basic report of all the events that occurred since the last report.

“We have records of everything sent since the AIs suppressed Harrison’s World a decade ago. It should be a simple matter to send a captured ship to deliver a forged report.”

Harrison—the newly formatted AI on Boxer Station—would be able to create one that would raise no electronic eyebrows. The friendly AI had none of the murderous core rules that its predecessor had. He was firmly allied with the New Terran Empire.

And allied was the appropriate word because the Imperial Senate had recognized AIs as individuals worthy of all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Boy, had that caused a ruckus. Jared just wished they had more of the sentient computers to help them.

“Exactly how often have plans proceeded precisely as we wished?” the emperor asked. “No, I think it might be best to send a team of our very best people to be sure this critical mission goes off without a hitch. And you, my boy, are the right man to lead it.”

The older man grinned. “I realize that command of a destroyer is a big step down for an admiral, but I think you’ll remember what needs to be done.”

Jared laughed. “Considering I was commanding a destroyer just a couple of years ago, I think it’ll all come back pretty fast. When do you want me to depart? I need to get back and brief Charlie Graves about taking command of the defenses at Erorsi.”

“Immediately,” his father said. “The fast courier will take you straight to Boxer Station. Then she will deliver new orders for Commodore Graves to assume permanent command at Erorsi. The mission is scheduled to depart any day now, so you need to get familiarized with this new ship and assemble your crew at once.

“And with the Rebel Empire now aware of our presence, the chances that you will need to improvise are even greater than normal. I think we need to plan on things working out differently than we imagine.”

The older man leaned back in his chair. “I said immediately, but I suppose we can have dinner first. I wouldn’t want to send you out on an empty stomach.”


* * *

Commodore Sean Meyer considered Coordinator Olivia West across her dining table for a long moment. “I don’t think so.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Olivia said as she sipped her wine. “Of course I’m going.”

Sean and she were supposedly having a working dinner at her residence on Harrison’s World. He suspected no one was fooled by their charade that this was a professional visit, but he had to keep up appearances.

The two of them had discovered a spark as they worked hand-in-hand to restore Harrison’s World to its former glory. He hadn’t been involved in a serious relationship for many years. She had lost her fiancé years ago.

Fleet Captain Brian Drake had taken his own life on the flag bridge of the superdreadnought Invincible when the system Lord suppressed Harrison’s World a decade ago, making it impossible for their rebellion to succeed.

The man had held on as long as his supplies had allowed inside the superdreadnought that they’d secretly restored. Then, once he and his people had no other option, they’d taken the painless way out.

The fact that Olivia and he were lovers now didn’t change anything, he told himself. Her presence on board the ship wasn’t necessary. He didn’t need to risk their strongest ally in the region.

Even he had to admit that sounded like a lame excuse.

He gave the ruler of Harrison’s World a quelling stare. It bounced off her smug expression ineffectively.

Sean sighed. “Why in the world would I send you on a mission involving a Fleet ship? You wouldn’t know the first thing about what to do in a crisis.”

“Wrong. I know exactly what to do first in a crisis. Stay calm.”

“Let me rephrase,” he said repressively. “What would you contribute to the mission? We’re sending a destroyer to send an automatic message and then come back. It’s not going to interact with anyone.”

She pointed her fork at him. “Are you certain of that? Just because it hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it won’t happen this time. What will you do if you’re required to have inside knowledge of how the Rebel Empire operates? You need someone that knows.”

“I hear what you’re saying,” he said after a moment. “We already have someone like that. Commander Michaels, the computer specialist we captured at Erorsi. If they need specialized information, he’ll have it.”

“That assumes the emperor will allow him to accompany you,” she said. “That’s doubtful. In any case, meaning no offense to the good commander, he’s only of the middle orders. If your ship has to deal with someone from the higher orders, it’s a completely different—what’s that term you use?—kettle of fish.

“Perhaps sometime you can explain why anyone would keep a kettle of fish around and exactly how they differ from one another. No, you need to have someone on hand that can explain what the rulers of the Rebel Empire are actually thinking. That means me.”

He wished he could argue, but she was probably right. In any case, he knew by now that he was going to lose this fight.

“Admiral Mertz arrives tomorrow,” he said at last. “The Emperor appointed him to command the expedition ship. I just got the word of that a few hours ago.

“If you’re going, then I’m going, too. It should be a short trip, so my absence here won’t make any difference.”

She raised an eyebrow. “And you think that Admiral Mertz is going to just allow the station commander to go along on this mission?”

He grinned. “You’re not the only one that can be persuasive. We need to have the very best selection of people aboard. I feel confident that I can wiggle my way into the executive officer’s position. I have quite a bit of experience in the role, you know.”

“Weren’t you fired the last time you were an executive officer?” she asked archly. “I seem to remember hearing a story about you being thrown into a cell. Well, two cells, if you count what I did.”

Sean grunted sourly. That had certainly been true. He’d rescued Princess Kelsey and Jared Mertz from his previous commander, Captain Wallace Breckenridge, and been thrown into the brig for mutiny.

Then the AI had captured Spear and many of the crew had been sent to Harrison’s World. Olivia had locked them all up in a prison camp. One he’d escaped from, but he didn’t think he needed to mention that little detail right now.

“I do hope you realize bringing that up is going to cost you,” he said with a grin.

Olivia set her wineglass down and smiled back at him. “And what is the price that I shall have to pay? Does it, perhaps, involve some late-night entertainment?”

“Considering this might be the last evening we’ll have to ourselves, you’re damned right it does.”



Chapter Two

Crown Princess Elise Orison wasn’t a happy woman. Her sources inside the Imperial Palace at Avalon in the New Terran Empire had told her that Jared’s father was sending him off on another mission.

Not exactly the news a newly wedded woman wanted to hear when it involved her husband of only a few weeks. Particularly when they’d only had stolen moments to celebrate alone.

Well, they’d had one night after the wedding, but it was so rushed that it barely counted. It had been divine, but far too brief.

The night she’d come to visit him at Erorsi was even worse. The threat of imminent attack had hung over them, distracting him when she wanted his undivided attention.

Jared was a serving Fleet officer. One critical to the defense of both the New Terran Empire and her own Kingdom of Pentagar. His focus had to be on the war with the Rebel Empire, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t arrange for a little more time at his side.

By all accounts, the journey to deliver the message would take six days and then they’d spend the same amount of time coming back. Two weeks sharing their marital bed, even with his attention focused on the mission, would just about satisfy her. For now.

That was how she’d found herself waiting for him in the Nova system aboard His Majesty’s fast courier Lance.

The quarters were cramped, but such was the nature of a ship designed to get from one place to another at the fastest possible speed. The little vessel was mostly drives. That meant her closet back at the palace was bigger than her current accommodations.

Not that she cared. She was focused on work. A princess’ duties were never done.

A rap at the hatch drew her attention from the report she was reading. She rose to her feet, crossed over, and opened it. Lieutenant Commander Gerald Parker, the ship’s commanding officer, stood outside.

“My apologies, Highness, but we have a priority message for you.”

“You could have just sent me a message through your implants,” she reminded him.

He grimaced. “I’m still trying to get used to the idea and it’s only a few steps from the bridge to your door. Just contacting you seems rude when it scarcely took ten seconds to come in person.”

She smiled and shook her head. “I suppose it makes no difference. What’s the message? Admiral Sanders needs something? My father? Maybe even Jared?”

The young officer shook his head. “It’s from Omega, actually. He indicated that he needs to speak with you in person as soon as practical. His words.”

“Truly? And he asked for me?”

“He did, Highness.”

“Then I suppose I’d best go see him straight away. I assume you have a suit I can use?”

He nodded. “All ships are now equipped with hard suits that can survive in the radiation here for just such a contingency, I believe. We have three. Shall I accompany you?”

Elise shook her head. “Not inside, no. You can fly me over, though.”

An hour later, she stood on the hull of the alien space station looking at the bright gas circling the black hole where the sun in this system once gave its worlds life. Never in her wildest dreams had she ever imagined seeing such a thing.

“Welcome to my station, Highness,” a male voice said through her suit’s com system. “The journey through my hull is disconcerting, but safe. Are you prepared?”

She waved at Commander Parker. He stood in his ship’s sole cutter watching her.

“I’m ready, Omega. And it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

“As it is for me. Here we go.”

The hull deformed under her, sinking in to deposit her into a corridor filled with liquid. Water, so she was told. Omega came from an aquatic species before he’d volunteered to physically become part of the station.

“You’re right,” she said. “That was disturbing. What did you need to speak with me about?”

“That is something of a complex issue. There is a chamber around the ring where an environment suitable for humans is maintained. It would be much simpler if you were there. Turn right and it is only a few minutes away.”

Moving through the liquid in the heavy suit taxed her skills, but she managed to slowly make her way around the alien ring. That gave her plenty of time to think about where she was going.

The story of the chamber she was heading for was gruesome. Omega’s station had been designed to capture the power of his race’s star and create bridges to other realities. That was how his people had escaped the death of their world. They hadn’t had flip drives.

Her people were slowly adopting the term “flip point” in place of “space-time bridges” simply because it was more useable. Before the arrival of the New Terran Empire destroyer Athena, the Pentagarans hadn’t had interstellar drives and had been trapped in their own system, so not many people needed to use any term to describe them at all.

In any case, after the explosion of the sun in the Nova system, the station seemed to have been somehow linked to all others of its kind across the multiverse. In effect, they became a single station with Omega as the being in control.

Something about the bizarre situation made the skin of the station impenetrable and indestructible. It also meant that people from any universe where the station existed could make the trip inside it, if they solved the riddle of opening its skin.

In those days, Omega had been unable to communicate with humans. He had no basis for establishing a dialogue with the humans trapped inside his station.

People that were variants of others Elise knew. People that had died building that chamber she was heading for while they waited for rescue that never came.

Carl Owlet—Sir Carl, she corrected herself—had managed to crack that secret, just like so many others the brilliant young man had solved. He’d also found the dead bodies of a number of people he knew in the chamber, including several versions of himself.

That had to be eerie. And macabre.

Elise arrived at the hand-built airlock leading into the compartment and started cycling herself in.

“Once you get inside, I think it best you know that you aren’t alone,” Omega said as the water began draining from the lock.

“What?” Elise straightened in surprise. “Who else is here? Our ship was the only one in the system.

“True, but there is a visitor from another reality.”

Elise started to ask again who was waiting on the other side of the hatch, but stopped herself. It was already swinging open. She might as well find out the old fashioned way.

She also made a mental note to explain the difference between pleasant and unpleasant surprises to the alien when she had the opportunity.


* * *

To Olivia’s mind, her original tour of the destroyer had been a tad underwhelming. Of course, it had been converted to computer control and no longer had the fittings for human habitation at that point.

The Fleet personnel of Boxer Station were rapidly correcting that deficiency and she wanted to see her new quarters. Lieutenant Logan Butters, one of the base’s engineering officers, was escorting her.

They exited the cutter that had delivered her to the destroyer in its repair slip. The inside of the ship seemed much the same as she remembered, but men and women were bustling about and getting everything prepared for the human crew.

“How long until the ship is ready to depart?” she asked her guide.

“It could leave tomorrow, Coordinator, but the refurbishment will be complete the day after that. Call it forty-eight hours. They’ve reserved one of the senior officers’ cabins for you.”

“I do hope that no one was displaced to make room for me.”

He shook his head. “No. They’re running with a reduced crew, so they didn’t need all of them. The automated systems will allow them to get by with roughly two-thirds of a normal crew.”

They stepped into the lift and he sent them up. Moments later, the lift doors slid open and they continued down the corridor. He went a little further and then gestured at one of the hatches.

“This is it. I’ve taken the liberty of linking the controls to your implants already.”

Olivia sent a signal to the hatch and it slid open. She walked inside and schooled her expression. It was even smaller than she’d imagined. Well, she’d make do.

They’d moved standard Fleet furnishings in, so she had a bed, a desk, and all the other aspects of life she would need for the next two weeks. Everything had probably come from ships in the graveyard.

Including the bed.

Sleeping on something belonging to a long-dead Fleet officer was a little ghoulish. That might take some getting used to.

“I took the additional liberty of providing all the little consumables you’ll need,” the lieutenant continued. “They’re stashed in compartments in the bathroom and in here. Let me show you.”

Over the next half hour, he gave her a detailed tour of her accommodations and demonstrated everything. Much of it was already familiar to her, but some was new and strange. It would take a little getting used to.

Once she was satisfied she had everything committed to memory, she turned to face him. “Could we see the bridge?”

The officer nodded. “Of course. This way.”

It was on the same level and just down the corridor. She imagined that the designers had wanted to put the senior officers right at hand in case of an emergency.

The hatch leading in was open. Unlike other parts of the ship, the bridge work was finished. All the modifications for human control were in place.

Olivia marveled at how much smaller it was than the flag bridge on Invincible. Cramped didn’t begin to describe the difference.

She took a great liberty and sat in the commander’s seat. Everything was so intimate. She could almost read the screens on the other control consoles.

The main screen showed the interior of the semi-open repair slip on Boxer Station. A man on a small sled zipped by, probably delivering something to the massive ship just visible behind him in the next slip.

That was the superdreadnought Implacable. The battle damage that had killed her was still all-too visible down her flanks. The crew had committed suicide by dumping their air when the AI-controlled ships had brought her to heel.

The idea of so many people still floating unrecovered in the ships of the graveyard turned her stomach. She knew how their friends and family must have felt. Intimately.

Fleet Captain Brian Drake, her lover a decade ago. The memory of his suicide still tore at her heart, even though Sean Meyer had brought her feelings back to life.

She’d seen Brian and his comrades buried with every bit of pomp and circumstance. The same was true with the dead from Implacable. The ship was going to be the nucleus of the new fleet based here at Harrison’s World. It seemed only right.

That left the millions of bodies still entombed on tens of thousands of derelicts. Recovering them and seeing them laid to rest would take decades. Well, they’d been waiting five hundred years already. What were a few more?

At one time, Fleet in the New Terran Empire had buried their dead at a monument called the Spire. There was no way that could continue, so she had overseen the dedication of an identical monument here on Harrison’s World.

Located in the area around one of the cities destroyed by the AI during the suppression of her world, it had space for all of the dead they might find.

“I’m surprised to find you here,” a voice said from behind her.

She turned in her seat and found Sean standing beside the hatch. Lieutenant Butters was nowhere to be seen.

“I must’ve gotten lost in thought,” she said as she rose to her feet. “This little ship isn’t much to look at.”

He smiled. “Yet she’ll fight hard if she needs to. The metal of a ship isn’t in her hull; it’s in her crew. Have you had lunch? We can drop in on the mess hall and see if the cook is any good.”

“Can we replace him if he isn’t?”

Sean laughed and held a hand out to her. “I’ll see what I can do. Come on. We’ll eat and then I’ll give you the grand tour.”



Chapter Three

Jared frowned as he examined the display over the captain’s shoulder. The bridge of the fast courier Javelin was small and he already missed his spacious flag bridge. Even Athena’s control center had been bigger.

“What are they doing?” he asked, more to himself than anyone else.

“Looks like they’re waiting for us,” Lieutenant Calvin Fassbinder said.

“Well, I suppose I’d best find out what this is about,” Jared said. “Might I borrow your seat?”

The young man rose and took one step away. That put him almost against the bulkhead. The bridge was that small.

Jared sat and switched the view to the communications controls. The Pentagaran ship sat near the flip point linking to Avalon, where there was zero chance they’d miss Jared’s transit and they were close enough that the incredible radiation density wouldn’t overwhelm his signal.

Even with the suddenness of his orders, they’d known he was coming. Jared knew that because they asked for him by name.

They hadn’t said so, but he suspected they either had orders to lure him to Pentagar—which he would have to reluctantly decline—or they’d brought his wife out to see him.

That would make refusing her entreaties even harder.

Well, that was why they paid him his exorbitant salary. He opened a com channel. “Lance, this is Javelin. What can we do for you?”

The image of the ship vanished, replaced by Lieutenant Commander Parker. The man smiled. “Lord Admiral Mertz. A pleasure to see you as always, Highness. Your Lady wife requires some of your time on a matter of urgency. And delicacy.”

That caused the corners of Jared’s mouth to twitch up. “I see. Well, I do have some time to spare, though not nearly as much as I might like. I’ll be over in a few minutes.”

The other man’s expression became more serious. “Bring your guards, Lord Admiral. All of them.”

Parker killed the channel before he could ask why.

With a shake of his head, he relinquished the console. “I’ll need your cutter, Lieutenant. Let me go collect my guards. My wife must be more annoyed than usual.”

The other man gave him a look. “That’s why I’m staying single, sir.”

“You say that now, but you’ll find the right person eventually. Never say never.”

The trip back to his quarters was quick. On a ship this small, getting anywhere fast was never a problem.

As they were going directly from Avalon to Harrison’s World, only needing to transit the Nova system, he didn’t have to worry about actually spending the night in the cramped cabin. His father had sent him out first thing in the morning after their dinner, so he was good to go.

His guard staff was holed up in the small compartment. His guard complement consisted of a mixture of Imperial Guards and marines. There were situations where one or the other group might be more appropriate.

Lieutenant Colonel Adrian Branson was in overall command of the mixed unit. He sat on the bed beside Major Karalee Smith, the marine detachment leader.

The two of them were more co-leaders than superior and subordinate, so Jared had wisely decided to keep his mouth shut about their budding relationship.

Frankly, he was surprised he’d figured it out on his own. Elise was much better at that sort of thing than he was. He hadn’t even noticed Kelsey and Talbot were a couple until someone pointed it out to him.

The third person sitting on the bed wasn’t a guard. In fact, he wasn’t even an Imperial citizen or in any branch of the military at all.

Alexander Alexander—Double Alex to his friends—was Jared’s Pentagaran manservant. There’d been discussion about giving him both a Fleet steward and a Royal manservant, but he’d drawn the line at one person.

Hell, one was too many, but he’d seen himself losing that fight. A good officer knew when to perform a fighting retreat.

Alex could be a little obsequious when he chose, but in private, he’d shown himself able to unwind a little. There was a spine in there somewhere. Out of all the choices presented to him, Jared thought their personalities might mesh the best.

This trip on the destroyer was sort of a test. If Alex didn’t drive Jared insane in two weeks, they’d probably be able to do this. If not, he’d send the man packing and find someone else that his wife approved of.

“I’m headed over to the Pentagaran fast courier Lance,” Jared said as he opened his closet. “I was told I needed to bring my guard.”

Branson heroically managed to avoid rolling his eyes. “Of course you need to bring your guard, Admiral.”

The two of them had had a long discussion on the use of titles. The Imperial Guard officer preferred “Highness” since Jared was technically a prince of the blood and the Prince Consort of Pentagar, but he’d accepted Jared’s decree to only use that during unambiguously social affairs.

So, the man had acquiesced to using his rank in all other circumstances. That defaulted to almost every situation, which pleased Jared to no end.

“I see what you did there, but I mean he made a point of telling me to bring you. That’s weird.”

The Imperial guard’s eyes narrowed. “Then we’ll go over in force. I’ll summon the ready squad.” His eyes flicked to Major Smith. “You get everyone else ready to come over if we need them.”

The slender woman shook her head. “Won’t work. We only have a single cutter. You need to have it there at all times in case you have to retreat in a hurry. We don’t have suits to make the jump in this hellish environment, either.”

The man in Imperial whites scowled, but nodded. “Then we pack everyone into the cutter. Everyone. Get them there.”

The marine rose without a word and strode out of the compartment.

While they’d been speaking, Jared had pulled out his gun belt. He didn’t go armed as a matter of course—unlike Kelsey—so he’d left it in his closet. He certainly didn’t think he’d need a weapon now, but it was prudent to bring it.

A few minutes later, the entire security detail was crowded into the cutter. It was an exceptionally tight fit.

All told, he had over four dozen people in his security detail, so they could handle multiple shifts and situations. A cutter was designed to comfortably seat three dozen people in the passenger compartment.

It turned out one could hold everyone on his security staff. Barely.

Double Alex took one look at the sardine can and headed for the cockpit, declaring he would ride at the flight engineer’s station. A wise man.

Being similarly prudent, Jared evicted the co-pilot and took over control of the flight.

“Remind me to make sure we have a pinnace as our small craft going forward,” he told the Pentagaran. “It has a lot more internal space. It has to, to deliver seventy marines in powered armor.”

The man nodded. “I’ve already done so, Highness. One suitably modified for dual use, as I doubt you’ll be needing marines every trip.”

Jared exchanged words with Javelin’s bridge and detached the cutter. The trip to Lance would only take a few minutes. That still gave him plenty of time to worry.

What the hell was going on over there?


* * *

Work was continuing on preparing the destroyer for human habitation and control, but Sean was satisfied that she was far enough along for a test flip to be certain everything was functioning correctly.

He’d consulted with Fleet command about renaming the ship. R-4587 just didn’t have snap to it. With their concurrence, he’d secretly rechristened the ship.

Sean suspected Admiral Mertz would approve of her new name: Athena. The original would finally be sent to the breakers at Harrison’s World and remade.

“We’re at the weak flip point, Commodore,” Commander Janice Hall, their helm officer, said.

The position was a big step down for a woman who’d recently commanded a light cruiser, but she didn’t seem to mind. And, since the ship’s captain would be an admiral, well, it wasn’t too big a downgrade in comparison.

“Take us over as soon as we get the green light from our escort.”

Sean had chosen to have one of the fully operational ships flip with them, just in case there was a serious failure. Not that he expected any trouble, but the Nova system was not the place to have a break down.

The light cruiser Brazil had recently finished her trials and was heading for Avalon. He figured the two ships could travel together to the artificial flip point that Omega had created. By then, he’d be sure of Athena’s stability.

“My compliments to Commander Meissner, Wanda. Tell her we flip in sixty seconds.”

“Aye, sir,” Commander Wanda Dieter, their com officer, said. “She reports that they’ll be ready.”

“Battle screens up, Commodore,” Commander Evan Brodie said. Their tactical officer was grinning.

“Excellent,” Sean said with an indulgent smile. Something about the man excused his occasionally excessive exuberance.

Sean tapped his console and opened a link to engineering. “Are we there yet?”

“Obviously not, sir,” Commander Katheryn Pence said. The chief engineer’s tone was mildly acerbic, but neither of them were overly bothered by their antics. She’s served aboard Spear with him for years. “We are, however, ready to flip at your command.”

“We flip in…fifty seconds.”

“Copy that. Engineering out.”

The hatch to the bridge slid open and Olivia West walked in, accompanied by the ship’s doctor, Commander Emmett Dishmon.

“Am I in time?” she asked.

“Barely,” he said with a nod. “Have a seat. Forty seconds to flip.”

The new arrivals secured themselves at the observation consoles just in time.

“Flipping the ship,” Hall said.

Moments later, the familiar twisting tore at his guts. It lasted only an instant, but still made him grimace.

The view from the main screen had changed. Instead of a star field, everything was a haze. The radiation and stellar matter thrown off in the titanic explosion that collapsed this system’s sun into a black hole had flooded the outer system with this crap. It only cleared up once one reached the inner system.

Brazil reports a good flip,” Dieter said. “They’re ready to proceed.”

“Set course for the inner system and take us in,” he ordered.

He turned to face Olivia. “How was your first flip?”

She stuck out her tongue sourly. “I’m glad I took Doctor Dishmon up on the shot. I can’t believe you do that all the time.”

“Fleet implants make it more tolerable. The civilian modules you have might not be up to the task. Trust me, before we had any implants at all, this was a real pain in the ass. First timers usually lost their lunches.”

Her face took on a look of revulsion. “Heaven protect me from that. How humiliating.”

“It was like a rite of passage,” he mused. “We’ll have to come up with new ones now.”

“You know that’s hazing, right? Can you do that?”

“Within certain limits, a little. You should hear what the fighter pilots do to their new recruits.” He shuddered theatrically. “Trust me. This is nothing.”

Doctor Dishmon was rubbing his chin. “I think I have everything on hand to update most of her implant components to Fleet standards. Maybe all of them. If not, I can get the missing equipment before we depart Harrison’s World. Would you like an upgrade, Coordinator?”

“I’d never considered it before,” Olivia said. “Should I?”

“The nanite package is worth it all on its own,” Sean said. “I say you should do it. After all, you’re normally so busy that you couldn’t block out the time. Why waste the opportunity?”

She considered that for a long moment and then nodded. “Then I will. What does the procedure entail?”

“I’d go in and swap out the implant processors, but the cranial wiring is the same for both Fleet and civilian,” Dishmon said. “You’d get some upgrades in processing capability and only half a day of light duty to make sure everything is calibrated.

“During that time, the new nanites will propagate. Once I insert the new population, they’ll override the civilian units and take over. That means I need to swap out the nanite fabricator, but that’s hardly worth mentioning.

“It would be different if you were getting Raider implants. Not that we could do them, mind you. Those would keep you down for a while and take multiple sessions over six weeks.”

He saw Olivia shudder. Knowing what he did of how the heir had gotten her implants, he understood.

“No,” she said. “I think Fleet level implants are quite enough, thank you. Perhaps we can get them done now? Then I’ll be fully back to normal by the time we get home. I’ll have a last flurry of things to take care of before we head into the Empire. Excuse me, the Rebel Empire.”

Dishmon glanced at Sean, so he nodded his approval.

“Absolutely,” the doctor said as he stood. “We can start right now. Commodore.”

She stepped over and kissed Sean. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”

It amused him how the bridge crew were studiously working on their consoles after Olivia left. The woman really knew how to push his boundaries. He wasn’t the kind of man that appreciated public displays of affection, so she’d made absolutely certain everyone now knew they were an item.

Well, that would be obvious as soon as they started visiting one another at night. A destroyer was a small community. Far too small for secrets like that.

Knowing her, she also wanted to get the word out back on Harrison’s World. Olivia West did nothing by accident. Everything was always planned and considered.

Sean smiled. He’d have to take the chance to turn the tables on her with some surprising behavior. Fair was fair.

“Yes,” he said dryly. “Coordinator West and I are seeing one another. Carry on.”

“We’re not the ones carrying on. Sir.” Evan said in a sotto voice.

Everyone laughed, including Sean. “Touché. Now, how about we get this ship on the move. I’d like to get things wrapped up before the admiral gets to Harrison’s World. Make it happen, people.”



Chapter Four

Olivia thought the procedure to update her implant hardware to Fleet standards took very little time and seemed to be a simple process.

At first glance, everything felt the same. She supposed that the differences in performance speed and capability were more subtle than she’d imagined. So long as they made the flips more tolerable, she could live with that.

Doctor Dishmon ran a set of diagnostics on her after the procedure. “Everything looks good. Remember to take it easy for the next twelve hours. Your new nanites are settling in, but I’d like to get them established before you need them.”

“I’m not seeing much difference between them and the ones I had before,” she said as she sat up. “Am I missing something?”

“The Fleet version has significantly more redundancy and will perform better when you have a lot going on. In general use, both are fast. I’d wager you see the difference after you really get to put them through their paces.”

She nodded. “That sounds good. I suppose I should let you get back to business.”

He laughed and gestured at the mostly empty medical center. “I don’t have a lot of customers right now, but that’s how I like it. I’m sure I can find some paperwork to handle. Fleet loves paperwork.”

Olivia started to make a joke about the nonexistent paperless society, but an incoming call preempted her attention. It was Sean.

“We have a situation developing,” he said tersely when she accepted the call. “Can you meet me at the docking level?”

“I’m on my way,” she said, waving to the doctor as she strode into the corridor. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m not sure. Admiral Mertz is already here and is meeting Crown Princess Elise on her ship at Omega.”

That sounded innocuous. “They’re married. I think he’s safe enough.”

“Then why did they make sure he brought all his guards with him? All of them.”

“You’re right, that does sound odd. Why don’t you ask him?”

“I did. He’s heading over via cutter and has no idea. I tried to get the details out of the Pentagaran commander, but he said it was best not to say. I think we need to head over and see for ourselves.”

Olivia stepped into a lift and it whisked her down to the docking level. “Did you tell Admiral Mertz you were coming? Is he concerned? Might there be something wrong with the princess? What if we need a medical team?”

“Commander Parker told me no one was injured, but to have a medical team on standby. Nothing urgent, but it sounds damned odd.”

The lift opened and she stepped out to find Sean waiting for her. Together, they headed for the nearest cutter.

“They’re being very mysterious,” she said as they entered the cutter.

An ensign was waiting to see them strapped in. He gave Sean a nod and headed for the cockpit. Moments later, the cutter detached from Athena.

“We should arrive a few minutes after the admiral, but I asked him to wait for us,” Sean said. “This makes me nervous.”

They spent the next few minutes pondering what could be going on, but arrived at the Pentagaran ship as clueless as when they started.

“Admiral Mertz’s cutter is undocking to make room for us,” he said. “We’ll find out pretty quick, I suppose.”

The docking seemed to take forever, but they were actually standing in just a few minutes. When the lock opened, she found Admiral Mertz on the other side. He had his guards with him. Dozens of them.

“Don’t you think this is overkill?” she asked as she stepped out.

“Coordinator,” he said with a nod. “I suppose so, but Commander Parker said Elise had instructed him to tell me to bring them all. I’m not sure what’s wrong.”

The lift doors opened and Commander Parker stepped out. “My timing is good. Welcome aboard, Highness, Coordinator. I’m sorry to have been as mysterious as I’ve been, but Her Highness was very specific that I not say what the situation is.”

“Are we in danger?” Jared asked.

The man shrugged. “I’m not precisely sure I’d call this situation immediately dangerous, though it might have elements that I haven’t grasped yet. If you’ll accompany me to the main deck, I’ll give you a rundown of the basic elements I know.”

“Why isn’t Elise here?” Olivia asked. “Is she okay?”

“I saw her not ten minutes ago, Coordinator. She is fine.”

Jared turned to his guards. “Follow me up.”

“I think not,” a man in New Terran Empire Imperial Whites said. “We send a team up first and I go with you.”

“Is all this really necessary?” Sean asked Parker.

“I believe so, Commodore,” the other man said gravely. “Basically, we arrived here a few hours ago and Omega summoned Princess Elise. She didn’t come back alone. It seems we have a visitor.”

Olivia frowned. “A visitor? From Omega?”

Jared’s face showed he’d grasped the situation. “From another universe. Oh, crap.”

The lift returned from taking the first set of guards up. Parker, Jared, the guard commander, and she went into the lift with a few more guards. The trip up took only a few moments. They rejoined the other guards.

“I see you’ve grasped the basic situation,” Parker said. “Her Highness is waiting in our wardroom with our guest. She is concerned that this meeting might go…badly.”

“Who is it?” Jared demanded.

The hatch slid aside and Olivia looked inside the room. What she saw sent a cold chill through her. Crown Princess Elise of Pentagar waited inside, with a very familiar figure beside her.

The short woman in black armor had her helmet off and Olivia recognized Princess Kelsey Bandar. Only, this woman was not their Kelsey. This woman had a deep scar on the left side of her face and some kind of artificial eye under a metal plate.

What Olivia could see of the woman’s natural face didn’t hold the cheerful expression she would’ve expected. No, this woman glared at them all with a look of mixed anger and revulsion.

“Just my luck,” the new Kelsey said in a low growl. “The Bastard.”


* * *

Jared stood there in shock for a long moment before he roused himself. “Kelsey. I suspected we’d get visitors from other realities, but I hadn’t considered you might be the first.”

She visibly tensed. “Don’t be familiar, Mertz. You don’t get to use my first name. Only my friends do. I am your crown princess.”

The sense that he was caught in some strange nightmare washed over him. He opened his mouth to tell her that wasn’t how it was, but stopped himself. This might have been how they’d turned out if things had gone differently.

Obviously, it was exactly how they’d turned out in her universe. He’d best keep in mind that this was not his sister. This was Crown Princess Kelsey Bandar, a woman who obviously loathed him.

“Forgive me, Highness,” he said with a small bow. “I will of course respect your wishes. Might we come in?”

The woman glared at him a moment longer before stepping back.

Elise stood there, a stricken look in her eyes. One she masked almost as soon as he’d seen it.

He wanted to take his wife into a hug, but he needed to keep his eyes on the unpredictable threat in the room. This Kelsey obviously hated him and, based on her armor, had Marine Raider implants. She could kill him anytime she chose.

Interestingly, she showed no sign of recognizing Olivia West. Yet, unless things were very different in the other universe, she’d come through Harrison’s World to get to the Nova system.

He started to step into the compartment, but his guards moved in first. By some unspoken cue, the Imperial Guards moved to the side of the compartment that Kelsey stood on and the marines backed him up. Their hands were close to their weapons and the tenseness in the air went up.

“Stand down,” Kelsey told the guards in white. “Call off your dogs, Mertz.”

Jared made a gesture and they all relaxed just a hair. Interestingly, she only seemed to associate the marines with him. He decided not to correct her misapprehension and communicated his intent over his implants to the guards.

Keep things low key. She’d not associating the Imperial Guard with me, so let’s keep it that way for now.

Colonel Branson looked unconvinced, but nodded almost imperceptibly. His implant response was very direct, however.

We’ll play it your way, Highness, but she’s not our princess. If she makes a move on you, we’ll come down on her.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. He stepped cautiously into the wardroom and gestured to his companions.

“You’ve already met Elise. This is Commodore Sean Meyer and Coordinator Olivia West.”

Kelsey’s natural eye narrowed again. “Mind your manners, Bastard. That’s Crown Princess Elise to the likes of you.”

The absurdity was almost too much, but this wasn’t the time or place to educate her.

“Of course. Forgive me, Highness,” he said to Elise.

Anger flashed in her eyes, but also horror and sadness. His wife visibly swallowed and nodded. “Of course, Admiral. Shall we all sit? This might take a while.”

Kelsey ignored her and walked over to Sean. For him, she had a smile. “This is a well-deserved promotion, Commodore. It’s good to see you again, Sean. Even if you aren’t precisely the same man I know.”

If her reaction shocked him, he hid it well. “It’s good to see you, too, Highness.”

She shook her head. “We’re long past that, my friend. It’s been Kelsey for years now. In my universe, we’re the very closest of allies. I certainly hope that’s true here, too.”

“It is,” he said with a smile. “I’m just trying to make sure I don’t make a mistake because of what I know about you here.”

“For you, I’ll forgive any lapse,” Kelsey said, momentarily taking his hands into hers in an obviously intimate gesture.

One that made Olivia narrow her eyes, but Kelsey was turned so she couldn’t see it. The expression had vanished by the time the princess turned to face her.

“Coordinator West. I’m sorry to say that I don’t know you. Is that a title in the empire here?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Olivia said evenly. “I rule Harrison’s World as part of the New Terran Empire.”

Kelsey opened her mouth to say something, but stopped herself. When she finally spoke, it was with great sadness. “I see now why I don’t know you. In my universe, the AIs sterilized your world. By the time my people and I arrived, there was no one left to meet. I’m very sorry to have to tell you that.”

Olivia visibly wilted. “I see. I wonder if we managed to ambush the AI there and that caused it to go even farther than in this universe.”

“We couldn’t tell,” Kelsey said with a shrug. “If it’s any consolation, we destroyed it along with the old Fleet station it was using as a base.”

Princess Kelsey sighed and turned to the table, sitting at its head. “So many things didn’t work out as we’d hoped.”

Jared considered sitting at the other end of the table, but suspected that would cause more instinctive hostility from his sister. Instead, he chose to sit in the middle of the table.

“You came to visit us for a reason, Highness. What can we do for you?”

She pinned him with a cold stare. “You can help me save the empire. I realize that might not be your first instinct, but I urge you to try it as a change of pace.”

This had gone on about far enough. If he didn’t draw a line in the sand, she’d walk all over him.

“First, with all due respect, you don’t know me. The Jared Mertz in your universe is not who I am. If he’s anything like me, he loves the empire and would give his life for it. You demand respect from me, so remember that it is you who are the guest here, not me.”

How he managed to say that without an edge to his tone, he had no idea.

It still didn’t stop her from sneering. “Please. You’re still the same toad here, I’ll wager. A man that wants to steal the empire from the rightful emperor. The man you tried to kill. Did you succeed here? I can’t imagine how else you’d style yourself an admiral.”

Rather than react with the anger he felt, he simply shook his head. “I can’t speak for your universe, but I never tried to kill anyone here. I simply protected myself when your brother tried to have me murdered. I serve the emperor with all my loyalty.”

Kelsey laughed. “How can you say something so absurd? In my universe, you’re a damned regicide and traitor.”

“You’re no longer in your universe, Highness. As hard as it is to believe, we’re close friends and allies here.”

She leaned forward with a palpable rage. “Never. How could that be when you killed my…her father?”

Sean cleared his throat. “That’s probably easier here since your father is still alive and on the throne.”

Kelsey’s head whipped around as she stared at him. “What did you say?”

“Your father still rules here,” Sean said in an even tone. “What Admiral Mertz says is true. In our universe, you and he are close friends and family. Together you fight against the AIs.”

“Is that true, Elise?” Kelsey asked slowly.

“Very true. Are we friends in your universe?”

Kelsey nodded. “Friends and allies, yes.” Her expression darkened. “I only hope you’re still okay there.”

“Then listen closely when I tell you that Jared Mertz is not your enemy here.”

“How could you know? He made a career of fooling everyone around him before he betrayed everything he supposedly held dear.”

Elise smiled. “I know him better than anyone. He’s my husband.”

The silence was profound.

“I’ve obviously fallen through the looking glass,” Kelsey said. “The world is turned upside down.”

“I’m sorry that our history in your universe is so bad, Highness,” Jared said slowly. “But we’re the people you have to work with. Why did you come?”

Kelsey jutted her chin out defiantly. “As much as it galls me, I need your help to save the empire. I have to go to Terra and you have to help me get there.”

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