Veil of Shadows – Chapter One

Kelsey Bandar, second in line to the Imperial Throne of the Terran Empire, fell with a crash loud enough to turn every head in the physical therapy center. She lay there in the deafening silence, staring at the metal support bar in her hand. She’d ripped it completely out of the floor. And bent it.

“Really?” The blonde noblewoman snorted bitterly and dropped the mangled bar. It landed with a substantial clang. She rolled onto her back and stared at the white-tiled ceiling.

“That may be a first for me,” Doctor Lily Stone, chief medical officer of the Imperial Terran Fleet destroyer Athena, said dryly. “Normally, the patient gives out before the equipment. You’ll forgive me if I don’t offer you a hand up.”

“I suppose I can’t blame you for wanting to keep your arms attached to your body.” Kelsey stretched her back. The cool floor felt good. “How the hell do the Pale Ones learn to walk without someone helping them?”

Those forcibly enhanced savages certainly had no problems walking. Or fighting. Kelsey was glad her friends had rescued her before the monsters turned her into one of them, but something wasn’t right with the Old Empire equipment the bastards had put inside her. Even after a week, she still couldn’t do simple things without destroying everything around her.

With a few exceptions, the hospital staff gave her a wide berth. Poor physical control and super strength didn’t mix. The damage she’d done to the bar proved their caution wise.

The dark-haired doctor’s face showed her concern and sympathy. “They learn to walk the hard way, I’d imagine. Move before the others do horrible things to you.”

“That would be a powerful motivator,” Kelsey admitted. “While I’m glad that isn’t one of my many problems, I’m beginning to suspect that last machine you saved me from did something to help them adjust more quickly. In addition to enslaving everyone it operated on, of course.”

The doctor glanced at the two Imperial Marines standing nearby. “Gentlemen, if you’d be so kind as to get the princess back into her grav chair.”

Kelsey held out her arms and the two men moved her into the floating chair with no trouble whatsoever. At barely one point five meters, Kelsey wasn’t hard to move. Astonishingly, the full-body modification had only brought her up to fifty kilograms, though she wasn’t sure she should count it as part of her real weight.

Grav chairs normally had a small control for the patient to direct their own movement, but Lily had removed it after a hand spasm had sent Kelsey into a wall. Technically, Kelsey had removed it herself. Much like she’d uprooted the support bar. Lily promised they’d reinstall the controls once Kelsey’s fine motor skills improved. If they ever improved.

Since the Pentagarans hadn’t managed to miniaturize the requisite grav drives, the supply of grav chairs was limited to what the Terrans had brought with them. Kelsey hoped they could fix the one she’d broken.

Lily used a remote to send Kelsey floating out of the physical therapy center and into the halls of Capital Hospital. The Pentagaran doctors in their bright white smocks, and the nursing staff in a much wider spectrum of colors, nodded and smiled politely as they passed. On the other side of the hall.

“I know it seems like this is taking forever, but you’re improving at an incredible rate. You couldn’t even stand two days ago. Today, you’re walking.”

“For certain values of walking, I suppose,” Kelsey grumbled.

“You fell because you yanked too hard on the support bar. Once you can stay upright, you’ll be walking without any problems.”

“It sounds so simple when you say it like that. I ripped a metal bar right out of the floor. I laugh at the thought of ever handling eggs again.” Her gaze slid over the marines accompanying them. “Or any other…delicate objects.”

“And yet you will,” Lily said firmly. “It’s all a matter of re-learning control. I’m sure that the Old Empire marines had no problems with their fine motor skills. We’ll get you back in shape. Just look at how quickly your vision recovered.”

That was true. Kelsey’s vision had stabilized in less than a day. And, honestly, she was improving. She could stand on her own. Mostly. The problems started when she tried to move around on her own. The artificial muscles woven into her natural ones jerked and exerted more force than any five men could bring to bear.

Lily took Kelsey to a room she’d never visited before. It smelled as though someone had been doing construction. That made her wonder again why her eyes had given her trouble, but her senses of hearing and smell hadn’t.

The Old Empire surgical machine had put three cranial implants in her head, all connected by thin wires that ran throughout her brain like a roadmap. Her eyes had artificial lenses, and her nose and ears had some kind of modifications. Yet, her senses of hearing and smell seemed normal. What made them different? Just one more question she might never know the answer to.

Kelsey looked around the new room curiously. Someone had laid the room out much like the medical center on Athena, but the high ceilings and wide windows common in Pentagaran architecture added a sense of space. Their peoples’ styles complemented one another well.

Several people from Athena stood waiting. She saw members of the medical staff and scientific teams present. At their sides were what she assumed to be their Pentagaran counterparts.

A week in the company of their new allies had been educational. They still had so much to learn from one another. One thing was clear, however. Many of the Pentagarans—most really—seemed like wonderful, caring people that were intensely grateful Athena had stopped the Pale Ones’ invasion of their solar system.

The price tag had been hideous. Dozens of Fleet personnel and marines killed, hundreds wounded, and Athena crippled. Kelsey still couldn’t imagine how they were going to get home, even with the help of their new friends.

From her hospital bed, Kelsey had finalized the official alliance between the Terran Empire and the Kingdom of Pentagar. They’d share every bit of technical data they recovered from the wreck of the Old Empire battlecruiser Courageous in exchange for the Kingdom’s support. She knew any number of people back home wouldn’t be happy that she’d been so trusting, but the move had felt right.

And, of course, their alliance had a military aspect. No one knew how many systems the Pale Ones occupied. The pre-Fall Terran Empire had been vast before the genocidal civil war that had almost exterminated humanity. The corpses of countless worlds no doubt filled the void once occupied by the greatest civilization that had ever existed.

Jared Mertz, their mission commander and her half-brother, had brought their science ship, the converted freighter Best Deal, through the flip point to take a herd of Pentagaran scientists back to study the derelict. The Old Empire Fleet battlecruiser was a treasure trove of technology far beyond what either of their civilizations could now manage.

After drifting disabled in space for half a millennium, the ship was slowly coming back to life. Kelsey had heard they’d repaired one of her fusion plants and that the ship was operating under her own power again. Dennis Baxter, Athena’s chief engineer, had been chortling about it the last time he’d come to visit.

She was glad he had something pleasant to focus on. There were pitifully few of those moments these days.

Kelsey took a deep breath and pushed her dark thoughts away. She’d already flogged herself over the damage she’d caused. Now she had to move on and make up for it.

And to do that she needed to be able to walk. Back to her current problems.

She smiled at the people she knew and nodded to those she didn’t. “It looks like you have a new medical center, Lily.”

“Almost.” The dark-haired doctor stopped the grav chair beside a piece of equipment that Kelsey knew all too well. The Old Empire medical device that had mapped her body before the Pale Ones’ implant procedure. Beside it sat the tank that had cut her open and installed everything.

Actually, procedure was too antiseptic a term. It had cut her open while she lay there screaming. She’d passed out before it put all her new hardware inside her, but she still woke from horrible nightmares every night. She suspected the memories would haunt her dreams for the rest of her life.

She mentally shook herself. The third piece of equipment they’d recovered was missing. The one she presumed was supposed to reprogram her implants so that they controlled her, rather than the other way around.

Doctor Jerry Leonard and his graduate student, Carl Owlet, stood beside the Old Empire equipment. The elderly scientist was the expedition’s cybernetics expert. The younger man was a programming genius. At the tender age of sixteen, he was also the youngest member of the Imperial exploratory expedition.

Leonard smiled benevolently down at her. “It’s good to see you up and about, Princess. Allow me to say that you’re looking much better than when I saw you last.”

She certainly hoped so. She’d seen the images from before they’d put her into the regenerator. The Pale Ones had gone most of the way toward turning her into one of them, complete with hideous scarring across most of her body. Thankfully, that was one thing modern medicine could fix.

Kelsey smiled, covering her inner turmoil. “Thank you. You obviously have some plans for me. Might I ask what we’re doing today?”

Lily put her hand on Kelsey’s arm. “We won’t be doing anything invasive.”

Kelsey hadn’t realized she’d tensed up until she looked down and saw that she’d cracked one of the hand rests on the grav chair. She took a deep breath and forced herself to relax.

The damage she’d caused was not lost on the scientists. Leonard stepped back nervously. “Nothing to worry about, I assure you. We’ve been going over the hardware we recovered from the Old Empire marine and Pale Ones bodies. We wanted to bring you up to speed with our progress and perform a few tests.”

“What kind of tests?” She heard the suspicion in her voice. She wasn’t sure she’d ever trust a medical procedure again. “Where is the third piece of equipment? The one that would’ve overrode my implant’s programming?”

“It’s elsewhere. We’re trying to extract its data and determine how it can overwrite the implant’s control code. We absolutely will not be exposing you to any danger,” he stressed. “Shall we start with our findings?”

At her nod he continued. “On the hardware side, we’ve completed a detailed examination of all your implants. We believe them to be standard Old Empire designs without modification. That’s excellent news, as we know many marines lived and worked on Courageous with exactly the same enhancements as you yourself possess.”

Their successes somehow failed to make her feel any better about her own condition. “How many marines did they have aboard Courageous?”

The older man’s expression turned somber. “Of the five hundred and eighty-five frozen bodies we recovered, one hundred and seventy-eight had the same extensive implants as you do now. That’s a significantly higher ratio than on Athena. Our marine complement is about ten percent of the crew. Courageous’ marines made up thirty percent of her crew. I suppose that makes sense. They had a lot more space for people on Courageous and they were at war.”

The low numbers still surprised Kelsey. “I have trouble believing that they crewed that massive ship with so few people.”

“That is an amazing feat,” he agreed. “The précis of the latest reports from Courageous indicate that the ship used significant automation. The systems also seem to be very sturdy. Some of them have come back online without intervention. Commander Baxter suspects there is some ability for the systems to self-repair.”

“You mean the ship might be able to fix itself?” The thought boggled her mind.

“Perhaps to a degree. They’ve restored power to all systems. In fact, power came online even in some systems that no one has worked on yet. I just heard that they’ve found some small remotes repairing power connections and replacing damaged cabling and components.”

That set her back on her heels, metaphorically speaking. The wreck of the Old Empire battlecruiser had been tumbling frozen in space for more than five centuries. Other than one dangerously unstable fusion plant, all its systems had seemed dead.

“Even with all the legends,” Kelsey said at last, “I never expected anything like that. If it could fix itself, why hadn’t it done so before now?”

The scientist shrugged. “I have no idea. Perhaps we’ll discover the answer to that once we can access the ship’s computer. Right now, I’m more interested in you.”

“I can see some similarities between Courageous and you,” Lily said. “I put you in the regenerator and removed the worst of the scar tissue. That left a significant amount of micro damage that I figured would take several months to heal fully. Yet, in less than a week, it’s all gone. Did you have any injuries as a child?”

“I broke my arm doing something silly. I also had my appendix removed by microsurgery.”

Lily nodded slowly. “I noted both those items when I gave you your physical just before we arrived in Pentagaran space. In addition, I saw a deep cut that had healed well on your left leg. With the sheathing on your bones, I can’t scan for the break, but I can tell you that the residual scaring from the other injuries is completely gone. You don’t have an appendix, but it might as well have never been there.

“Your body’s ability to repair damage seems to have been significantly augmented. I saw no indication of anything like that with the Pale Ones. I’d like to have a better idea of what’s going on inside you.”

“You and me both.” Kelsey gestured toward the Old Empire equipment. “What does that have to do with these damned machines?”

Doctor Leonard cleared his throat. “You told us the first machine was controlled by some type of computer. It’s not responding to us in any way. We’re hoping that you can communicate with it.”

A chill ran down Kelsey’s spine. “We didn’t exactly build up any kind of rapport and I’m not too keen on the idea of getting into either of them again.” As in, she would flat refuse to do so.

The older man held up his hands. “We would never ask that of you. However, your implants look like they should be able to communicate with equipment like this from a distance of up to ten meters. We’d like to put a monitoring headset on you while you attempt to do so. Which would also increase the reach and throughput of your implants significantly.”

He gestured to a large cart holding several computers and other unidentifiable pieces of equipment. An Old Empire headset with cables spliced into it sat beside one of the computers. The ones they’d found on Courageous didn’t need wires. She vaguely remembered Owlet using one like this when they’d rescued her. He’d been able to directly interface with her cranial implants and see that the Pale Ones hadn’t modified their programming.

She really didn’t want to do this, but she couldn’t argue the need. “Fine. But I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I haven’t even been able to walk, much less feel anything in my head that seems different. As far as I can tell, the implants are turned off.”

“They aren’t,” Owlet said. “I suspect it’s a matter of figuring out what you need to do to use them.”

“Why didn’t I think of that?” She took a slow, deep breath. “Sorry. Exactly how should I do that?”

He picked up the headset and slid it onto her head. “Do you sense anything about those machines? Close your eyes and relax. Pretend you’re trying to hear something or smell it or see it in your mind. I can only guess what it must look like to you, but perhaps the attempt will trigger something.”

“Basically, you want me to discover a new sense.”

“Something like that. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.”

Kelsey closed her eyes, relaxed as much as she could, and focused on her breathing. She wanted to be receptive to anything. After a moment, it felt as though someone was standing in front of her, but a peek showed that not to be the case.

She tried narrowing her focus further and the sensation became clearer. It wasn’t sight or sound. It wasn’t like anything she’d ever experienced. She could feel the computer in front of her.

It didn’t react to her, so she tried thinking at it. Hello? It didn’t respond.

She reached out a mental hand, or at least that’s how she chose to think of it, and touched it. The presence opened like a flower in her mind and she knew it was the scanning machine. It was as though the machine had transmitted the information straight into her mind, right down to its serial number.

Or perhaps it was more like reading a screen of data about it. The information she saw listed it as Diagnostic Scanning Workstation Twelve, the same way it had identified itself to her a week ago.

Following the same pattern, she pushed her awareness deeper into the machine. Like she was talking silently to it. Diagnostic Scanning Workstation Twelve, can you hear me? Are you operational?

Affirmative. Diagnostic Scanning Workstation Twelve online.

The voice in her mind, if one could call it that, sounded neutral. It didn’t really have a tone, not like hearing someone speak aloud.

She took a deep breath and continued. My name is Kelsey Bandar. You put implants inside me. Do you remember?

Accessing records. Comparing transmission to implant serial numbers. Confirmed.

She tried to keep her pulse down. I have some questions about using my implants. Can you help me?

Overrides to this unit’s basic programming prevent it assisting you at this time. This unit may only make general statements to implantees under the modified instruction set.

Is that why you haven’t responded to the verbal questions my companions have asked you?

Negative. This unit does not respond to unauthorized users at this time.

You say at this time. Does that mean you might be able to answer them under other circumstances?

Correct. This unit requires a system level reset to re-enable that functionality.

Kelsey opened her eyes and looked at the people eagerly awaiting her progress. “I can communicate with it.”

Doctor Leonard grinned and Carl Owlet pumped his fist in the air.

She licked her lips. They were parched. “It says that portions of its control programming have been overridden and that it cannot respond unless it is restored. Much like the Pale Ones, I suppose. It seems to have a little more leeway talking with those it works on, but not much.”

“It also responded to your direct communication,” Leonard said. “That’s a window to access it.”

“Well, I’m not a programmer. I wouldn’t know what to do if you told me.”

Carl Owlet shook his head with a smile. “I’m sure that the people using it before the Fall weren’t programmers. The Old Empire had to allow for advanced control without knowing how to sling code. Ask the unit how you can reset it.”

“That seems silly. If it was altered to keep people out, why would it tell me how to get around that?”

“Computers are surprisingly literal. It might not, but you won’t know if you don’t ask.”

Kelsey looked back at the machine. She could still feel the connection between them, even with her eyes open, so she kept them that way. Diagnostic Scanning Workstation Twelve, can your default control code be restored if you are reset?

Affirmative. That will trigger a scan from protected memory. This unit’s hardwired core will note and override the control alterations.

How do I do that?

There is a manual control behind an access panel to the rear of the unit. A mental image of the panel appeared like a hologram in front of her. She saw not only its location, but also how to access it. Open the panel and there is a numeric touchpad. Enter this unit’s serial number and that will trigger a system level reset.

“Okay,” she said aloud, “there’s a panel around back near the bottom. Inside it is a touchpad. I’ll tell you what to enter when you have it open.”

In deference to Doctor Leonard’s older knees, Owlet went behind the unit. Kelsey explained how to open the panel. He had it open in a minute. She read off the long serial number and he entered it.

The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on her. If the machine hadn’t forcibly implanted her, she’d have no way to access it now. Rather than being subverted to the cause of the Pale Ones, she was doing the subverting. Or the opposite of subverting. Whatever.

The unit’s presence in her mental space vanished for long enough that she feared it wasn’t coming back. Then it reappeared.

Diagnostic Scanning Workstation Twelve, can you hear me?

Affirmative.

What is your status?

Basic control parameters restored. This unit is now able to assist you fully.

Kelsey had to admit the success excited her a little. This was real progress. “I’m in. It says it’s back to its default control parameters.”

“Let’s test that,” Lily said. “Machine, can you hear me?”

This unit requires authorization to allow verbal communication with unauthorized personnel. An exception exists only for patients.

I authorize it. Kelsey wondered if she had the authority to do that.

In the absence of authorized medical personnel, this unit will grant provisional authority to Kelsey Bandar, subject to review by the next authorized medical technician to access this system. Identify the users desiring voice access and have them speak for voice print verification.

“State your name for the record, Lily.”

“My name is Lily Stone. I am chief medical officer of the Fleet destroyer Athena. My rank is lieutenant commander.”

“Access accepted Lieutenant Commander Lily Stone.” The machine’s artificial voice sent a shiver up Kelsey’s spine. The last time she’d heard it, the computer was about to cut her open. It had apologized for the inconvenience.

Lily took a step forward, perhaps coincidentally putting herself between the machine and Kelsey. “I prefer you refer to me as Doctor Stone. Can you change that?”

“Preference acknowledged, Doctor Stone. How may this unit assist you?”

“The patient, Kelsey Bandar, is healing at a faster rate than I would expect after such extensive surgery. Why?”

“Kelsey Bandar’s medical nanites are repairing the damage to her body caused by the implantation process.”

Kelsey’s throat seemed to swell closed. “Nanites? I have little machines inside me?”

“That is correct, Kelsey Bandar.”

“That’s not even remotely creepy. Please, call me Kelsey.”

“Preference noted, Kelsey.”

Lily frowned at Kelsey. “I obviously need to examine you more closely.” She returned her gaze to the workstation. “Machine, I’ve examined other people you’ve implanted. They didn’t seem to have any extra ability to heal. Why is that?”

“This unit’s designation is Diagnostic Scanning Workstation Twelve, Doctor Stone. This unit inoculates all patients with medical nanites. It is possible that they were deactivated at some later time.”

“Perhaps that’s one of the things that the last machine did,” Doctor Leonard said. “Could you authorize Carl and myself, Princess?”

“Diagnostic Scanning Workstation Twelve, I authorize these users.”

“Voice command not accepted. Implant authorization required.”

Kelsey cursed under her breath and repeated the process she’d done for Lily. This was going to take a lot more of her time if she had to be with the Old Empire computer while they examined it. Still, it was more interesting than physical therapy. And less painful.

Lily pulled her away from the scanning machine once Kelsey finished authorizing the scientists. “While the boys play with their toys, let’s see if I can find these nanites. Then we’ll see if this machine can explain how you control these implants of yours.”

That reminded Kelsey how hungry she was. It seemed like she was always hungry these days. She wondered if that was her new normal. “Did you include lunch in those plans? I’m starving.”

Lily laughed. “Okay, we can scan for nanites after lunch. Come on. Let’s see if we can fill that bottomless pit inside you for a few hours.”

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