Welcome to the Realms of Imagination

Official website of Science Fiction and Fantasy Author Carol Hightshoe
line4_winter.gif
MoH_Symbol_White_HaveArtDesign.png

Masquerades of Honor

line4_winter.gif

Chapter One

“I hate mysteries,” Captain Craig Leigh, former commander of the Centauri Alliance Starship Herakles muttered as he paced around the conference room.

“Ramsey, I was expecting you here five minutes ago.” Leigh heard Admiral Jayden Platt’s voice through a partially open door.

Leigh turned his attention to the view through the large windows. While Alliance Fleet Headquarters was scattered across several complexes along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, the majority of the command staff had their offices on what had once been the US Air Force Academy. Most of that historic site was now gone and the buildings and training facilities for the Fleet Academy stood against the backdrop of the mountains. The only remnant of the past still standing was the building that had been the Cadet Chapel. Still a chapel, open to all faiths, the elegant spires rose toward heaven in semblance of hands pressed together in prayer. While Leigh didn’t consider himself a man of faith, he had to admit there was something elegant and inspiring in the design of the building.

His reflection was pale in the glass—almost as if it were a ghost or shadow looking back at him. His pale blue eyes were faded to gray and appeared hollow as he continued to study his image. Sunlight sparkled on the snow, and the thin layer of frost on the window added to the spectral reflection. Interestingly, his reddish-brown hair appeared midnight dark; not pale or faded. He glanced down at the scars that crisscrossed his arms and the backs of his tanned hands. The ghostly nature of the image in the window hid the ones he knew were on his face. He frowned as he remembered the cave-in and avalanche that trapped him in the long-abandoned mine for several days. He had worked diligently, digging his way out before he was finally found. He still enjoyed exploring the caves and mines—but had learned to exercise a little more caution and to make sure he carried an emergency beacon at all times when doing so.  

“You’re teaching a weapon’s class?” There was a long pause. “Did you forget we had a meeting scheduled for this morning?” Platt’s voice was stern, and Leigh heard the command authority in it. Whoever was on the other end of the conversation was in serious trouble.

Leigh found it hard to keep his attention on the scene outside, but he didn’t want the Admiral to think he was purposefully eavesdropping on the conversation—even if there was no way to avoid doing so.

“Commodore Ramsey, I allow you to teach that class as a courtesy to the Academy Superintendent, but you are assigned to Tactical Operations. You work for me—not Admiral Pamylaka. You will report to my office immediately!”

Leigh glanced around at the plain, sparsely decorated room. The only break in the austere appearance was a collection of rocks and antique climbing equipment on several shelves, which fit with the view of the Rockies. Hearing movement from the Admiral’s office, Leigh turned his attention back to the window.

“Sorry you had to hear that, Craig.” Leigh turned to see Admiral Platt putting a small piece of quartz on a shelf next to the door.

“Hear what?” Leigh said with a nod.

“Exactly.” Platt gestured toward one of the chairs. “Please take a seat.”

Leigh settled into the comfortable chair and waited for the Admiral to start. Platt was a small, ebony-skinned man, whose dark hair was starting to streak with grey. He sat with his hands in front of him, his long, elegant fingers interlaced as he appeared to be studying Leigh, waiting.  

Leigh found his patience wearing as Platt continued to watch him. “Damnit Jayden, what is going on? I get orders recalling me to the Herakles and then a message to meet with you this morning to discuss my new assignment. Something tells me I’m not actually getting the Herakles back.”

“No, not yet. But, depending on how well you handle the assignment I’m going to give you, I might be able to sidetrack that promotion and let you keep the Herakles.”

“What kind of assignment are we talking about?” Leigh leaned back slightly and waited for the Admiral to explain. Something doesn’t feel right, he thought.

“Craig, you and your crew are the only ones I trust to carry out this assignment. It will require no small degree of subtlety and caution….” Platt looked up as another person stormed into the room.

“Reporting as ordered,” she said standing at the end of the table. Leigh shook his head at her slightly disheveled appearance.

Platt nodded. “Thank you for finally joining us, Commodore. Captain Craig Samuel Leigh…Commodore Kelli Lyssia Ramsey.”

“Commodore.” Leigh stood, smoothed his uniform shirt, and extended his hand. He was surprised by the strength of her grip and the rough callouses he felt on her hand. Seeing the sweat glistening on her skin, he wondered for a moment if she had run from the Academy to Platt’s office; but couldn’t imagine someone running that distance in the cold of an early season Colorado snow.

Leigh continued to stare at the Commodore; there was something familiar about her. She had a warm dusky complexion that had a golden glow to it. Her high cheek bones and narrow nose didn’t quite match her full lips. Her eyes, almost cat-like in their appearance, were a clear, deep gold that matched the oceans of Tethys. They were also hard and defiant, but he thought he saw a hint of mischief in their depths. Her deep black hair was slightly disheveled with layers framing her face and covering her ears; the rest was pulled back into a long ponytail. He doubted many would call Ramsey beautiful, but there was something exotic and intriguing in her features.

Ramsey was a couple of inches taller than he was and despite the power he felt in her grip, she was not a muscular woman. She was well-proportioned, with an athletic build accented by the tight dark green colored jumpsuit she was wearing. She also seemed young to hold the rank of Commodore. If he had to guess he would have put her in her late twenties; possibly early thirties, but that would be pushing it.

“Is there a problem, Captain?” Ramsey asked with a frown.

“I’m sorry, but you look familiar.” Leigh gave her a warm smile.

“Accepted.” She tightened her grip slightly before releasing his hand and assuming a parade rest position.

“Have a seat,” Platt said.

“I prefer to stand.”

Leigh didn’t miss the lack of proper address in Ramsey’s reply. He glanced again at the Commodore, then turned his attention back to Platt. From the looks these two were giving each other, he knew he didn’t want to be caught in the middle of whatever was going on. Unfortunately, he had a feeling he already was. If looks could kill.

“Ramsey…sit down,” Platt ordered.

It appears I’m trapped in the blast zone, Leigh thought.

The commodore came to attention, walked stiffly to the chair next to Leigh’s and sat down.

Platt took a deep breath, then turned his attention back to Leigh. “Craig, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this…” he paused and glanced at Ramsey. “Commodore Ramsey will be taking command of the Herakles…”

“What?” Both Ramsey and Leigh said together.

Platt raised his hand. “However, you will be remaining on board for a while, as an…observer.”

“Excuse me?” Ramsey jumped out of her chair and leaned on the table. “I have orders assigning me to the Excalibur after her repairs are completed. Why are those orders being changed without notice?”

“Admiral, why was my crew recalled if you were going to put another officer in command of the Herakles?” Leigh asked.

“Craig,” Platt said ignoring Ramsey. “I had to put a crew together on short notice. The majority of your crew was available, so the sensible course was to issue the recall.”

“I doubt the sensible course included changing my assignment from the Excalibur to the Herakles!” Ramsey said. “If a crew was needed on short notice why replace Captain Leigh?” She leaned closer to Platt, her hands flat on the table.

Platt slapped the table with both hands and half rose out of his chair. “At ease!”

Ramsey stepped back, her gaze never leaving Platt. Her voice was now controlled, but her stance was rigid, and her hands clenched tightly at her sides. “Leaving Captain Leigh onboard the Herakles is either a deliberate attempt to undermine my authority and ability to command or…”

“You are out of line!” Platt stood up and met Ramsey’s gaze with a smirk. “Your objections have been noted, but that outburst was uncalled for. I will not tolerate such behavior. Get your gear together and be ready to transport to the Herakles within the hour. Dismissed!”

Ramsey spun on her heel and stormed out of the office. She neither saluted nor otherwise acknowledged the Admiral.

Leigh watched the Commodore leave the room. Her behavior has been insolent and bordering on insubordination since she got here. She accuses Jayden of deliberately undermining her and he only gives her a verbal slap on the wrist. What the hell is going on?

“What do you think of your assignment?” Platt asked nodding toward the door.

Leigh stared at the Admiral, hoping to see a grin or some other indication he was joking. There was none. “You’re serious?” He took a deep breath. “She’s my assignment? What am I supposed to do? Seduce her or assassinate her?”

“Whichever works. Both are probably equally dangerous.” Platt smiled, then leaned forward slightly. “Seriously, I want you to watch her. I have reason to suspect she’s a Remaristi agent.”

“A Remaristi agent? With all due respect Jayden—what the hell are you thinking? Why are you giving her a command assignment? And why would you give her the Herakles?” Leigh drew a breath. “Sir, the Herakles was being prepped for refit, the crew on leave, in new assignments or awaiting re-assignment. This doesn’t make any sense.”

“Craig, I understand your feelings. Calm down and I’ll explain.” Platt stood up and moved to the window. Leigh turned his chair to watch the Admiral.

“Over here,” Platt said. “See that tiny crack.” He pointed to the corner of the window.

“Yes, Sir,” Leigh said.

“I showed it to maintenance the other day; they said it was too small to worry about at this time—but to let them know if it got bigger.” He paused.

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Right now, Ramsey is like that crack. I feel like I’m the only one who sees the risks, or cares about them. Unfortunately, there is nothing concrete I can give to Fleet Admiral Chan who wants proof she’s working for the Remaristi—just a lot of little things that, like this crack, could expand if not checked until it’s too late.

“Maintenance has me watching this crack, so they can replace it when appropriate. Large enough to justify the time and work, but before it becomes a catastrophic failure. Just as I want you to watch the Commodore.” He walked back over to the table, picked up a computer disk and tossed it to Leigh. “That’s Ramsey’s record. Study it—learn everything you can. You’ll notice her medical records show her to have genetic traits in common with Remaristi.”

Despite the neutral expression on the Admiral’s face, Leigh saw the tiniest hint of a smile at the corners of his eyes.

“I don’t want to influence your investigation by telling you all of my suspicions and what Admiral Chan considers to be circumstantial evidence. However, I did make a few notes the copy of her file I’m giving you.”

“I understand. But why now? Why me and the Herakles?”

“Take a look.” Platt slid a command packet across the table. “Those are the Herakles’ orders.”

Leigh opened the packet. “An ambassadorial transport?”

“Yes. One of the ambassadors is Chevmas from the Remaristi Imperium. In fact, he specifically requested to travel on the ship commanded by Ramsey.”

Platt stood up and moved to the window again. “Craig, think about it. She has spent several years on my staff and had access to most of the Alliance’s tactical and strategic planning. Hell, she helped develop over ninety percent of the defense plans for the systems bordering the Imperium. If there is any chance she is an agent…”

“Then the ambassador may be planning to help her defect. But, if she is a plant—wouldn’t they know she was no longer a ship commander. Seems odd to request to be on a ship commanded by someone who is in a desk job.”

“Interesting. However, we can’t take any chances—too much is at stake. I had to call in practically every favor someone owed me to get your crew recalled. I did it to make your job easier if you have to take command at some point.”

Craig found himself grinning. “So, you are intentionally undermining her authority, Jayden.”

“Yes,” Platt said with a grin.  “But, only if my suspicions are correct. Otherwise, I know I can trust you to be discreet and not cause problems.”

“Of course.”

“Good. I want you to give Ramsey just enough rope to hang herself with. Chan wants solid evidence, and all I have are suspicions; nothing solid—yet! I’m counting on you to get me the evidence I need to prove she is a Remaristi agent. Do I make myself clear, Captain?” Platt winked at Leigh then smiled slightly.

“Perfectly. You want me to let the crack get big enough it becomes obvious what she is, but I’m to prevent a possible catastrophic failure.” Leigh glanced at the command packet. “What should I tell Ramsey is the reason I’m still onboard? She has already raised an objection and if she and the Remaristi Ambassador are planning something, my not having a plausible explanation is going to put them even more on guard.”

“Tell her that since you’ll be transferring to Operations you’ve been assigned to rotate to several different ships as an observer. You’ll only be onboard until you reach the conference, then you’ll transfer to the Rakshasa. Command hears it all the time; we are out of touch with the ships away from Earth. Even though you’re fresh off your tour on the Herakles, we want you to be able to give us a better picture of how things are handled—other than just your own personal perspectives.”

Leigh nodded. He had voiced that complaint himself several times over the years. “Makes sense. It should work.”

Platt extended his hand. “Good luck, and be careful.”

“Yes, Sir.” Leigh took Platt’s hand for a second; acknowledging the implied agreement they had, then saluted and exited the room.

“I’m counting on you, Captain,” he heard Platt say as the door closed.

~ * ~

Leigh hesitated when he reached Ramsey’s quarters. While he suspected Platt had been manipulating the Commodore a bit, it was still enough to show him she had a temper. He also suspected she wasn’t the type to cool off quickly. He squared his shoulders, then pressed the door chime.

“It’s open.”

Leigh took a deep breath as he stepped through the door. “The Admiral and I finished up, so I thought I would meet you and we could transport up to the Herakles together,” he said.

He glanced around the room. Ramsey wasn’t there. Several bags were on the floor to the side of the door. There was a small couch and a couple of chairs around an entertainment-vid center. The opposite wall was built into a bookcase filled with books, knick-knacks and stuffed animals. A sharp metallic scent was in the air, conflicting with a lighter floral perfume.

Something crunched under his boot and Leigh looked down to see glass fragments scattered on the floor. He stepped carefully over the glass as he continued into the room. “Commodore?”

“Sorry.” She stepped out of one of the side rooms. “Finishing up my packing.”

Leigh wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but he was surprised to see she had apparently showered and was wearing a sharply pressed uniform. The silver-grey shirt was well tailored—not tight, but it accented her figure better than the jumpsuit had. She wore the sword and shield crest of Tactical Operations instead of the lion and club crest of the Herakles. Her hair was still pulled back in the long ponytail with the layers framing the side of her face. Not exactly within regulations, he thought.

“Would you like some help?” Leigh asked following her into the room. He looked around unsure where to start. This large area was set up as an exercise room with a thick mat on the floor and a couple of well used sparring dummies. One wall held an impressive collection of weapons representing several different worlds.

“All I have left to pack is what’s on that wall. No offense, Captain, but I let very few people handle those.” Ramsey offered him a soft smile; one he saw reflected in her eyes.

“I understand,” Leigh said studying the weapons. “These are very nice; although there are several I don’t recognize.”

Ramsey laughed. “Most are from worlds along the Remaristi border. I’ve always been fascinated by edged weapons and many of these are traditional or ceremonial weapons from worlds in those systems.”

“I understand the Remaristi still have a dueling tradition,” Leigh said.

“True. They often prefer to settle disagreements in single combat.” She lifted one of the weapons from the wall. “This is the siedastid’lik, it’s their traditional weapon. I learned to use it as a challenge.” Ramsey walked through a short demonstration of the weapon.

Her movements flowed in a graceful, but deadly dance as she held the weapon lightly and swept it through several complicated patterns. The siedastid’lik was a dual bladed weapon that seemed to be handled almost like a cross between a pole arm and a quarterstaff. The slender blades curved back slightly. The grip was wrapped in black leather. There was another sharpened blade in front of the grip curving up to a point in the middle. Two claw-like blades curved up and over the inner blade. The cutting surfaces sparkled as they caught the light in the room.

Ramsey cased the weapon and leaned it against the wall as she reached for another weapon. Leigh smiled at the small cat figurine hanging from the hilt of the blade. “Now, I know why you look so familiar,” he said pointing to the figurine. “You’re Kitty Kelli Ramsey. I was in my second year of the Basic Academy your last year in the Command Academy and I remember your graduation prank. I’m curious as to how you got all those cats into the Superintendent’s office.” He glanced again at the figurine and back up at Ramsey. How could this be the same Kelli Ramsey? She had to be at least four to five years his senior, but he would swear she was at least five to six years younger than he was based on her appearance.

Ramsey chuckled softly as she continued packing the weapons. “I hid in one of the conference rooms attached to his office before he left that evening. Accessing the emergency transport system, I was able to bring the cats into his office from a local shelter. I wiped the transport logs and got out of the building before the alarm systems activated.” She slung the cased siedastid’lik over her shoulder and picked up the weapons’ bags. “Incidentally, I understand all the cats were adopted within a week of my little prank—two by the Academy Superintendent.” She headed out into the main room.

Ramsey paused and placed the weapons’ bags on the floor with the others by the door. She attached transport tags to all the bags then turned and looked at Leigh. “Captain, I apologize for my attitude earlier; Platt and I always seem to bring out the worst in each other.” She shook her head slightly. “We’ve both been put in a bad position with this assignment,” she said. “Let’s try to make the best of it. Hell, I don’t even know what the assignment is.”

“I can agree with that, Commodore.”

“Please call me Kelli. I’ve never been a stickler for formality unless circumstances require it.” She held out her hand.

“Craig.” He smiled as he took her hand. “And, before I forget, Admiral Platt asked me to give you your orders.” He handed her the command packet.

Ramsey opened the packet and scanned the information. “What is this? An ambassadorial transport? What is Platt thinking? Replacing you with me makes no sense? I can understand someone wanting to use the flagship. It even makes sense to recall the crew instead of putting a new crew together. But, why, by the eyes of the Sheakaat, did I get assigned instead of you?”

“Admiral Platt said it was because the Remaristi Ambassador specifically requested to travel on the ship you commanded. If you don’t mind my asking—Sheakaat?”

“He did?” Ramsey glanced back down at the orders and the information with them. “That’s interesting.” Her expression grew thoughtful for a few seconds. Nodding her head slightly she reached down to grab her bags. “Sheakaat,” she said. “Just something I picked up when I was on the Excalibur.”

“Sounds Remaristi.” Leigh watched her for a reaction; but didn’t see one.

“Could be, I couldn’t tell you for sure. Our primary patrol routes were along the border, and most of the crew picked up a few colorful expressions from the area—usually without knowing what they actually meant. You ready to transport?”

Leigh pulled out his comm unit. “Do you want me to notify the Herakles about the weapons?” he asked.

“Not really, it’ll make a good drill for the security section.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those commanders who likes to order a surprise battle drill after a change of command just to shake things up?”

“You can relax, I prefer my tests and shakeups to be a touch more subtle. Speaking of shaking things up; can you tell me why Platt decided to leave you on the Herakles?”

“Apparently it’s because we ship captains have been complaining command is out of touch with what’s going on away from fleet headquarters. He wants me to visit several different ships and basically get information on how things are done by different crews and commanders. Essentially, I’m just along for the ride to the conference where I’ll transfer over to the Rakshasa.”

Ramsey’s expression hardened for a moment then she nodded. “Before I forget to ask; I would like a list of your standing orders, and a briefing on the command crew and department heads. Something tells me this is going to be a temporary assignment, and I would hate to come in and completely change everything the crew has been doing. Considering the sudden recall, it’ll be easier on them to let them settle back into their normal routine.”

“I’ll get the list and a briefing ready for you by tomorrow morning.” Leigh touched the main call button on his comm unit. “Leigh to Herakles.” He waited to hear the answering chirp. “Two plus several bags to transport.” He glanced at Ramsey’s bags again. Commander Hilte is not going to like this, he thought. However, it should be interesting.