Steff was seated on the bridge looking at the swirling blue light before her. Beta Hub was now behind them. They were in a wormhole rapidly getting further away from it. Once they were through a few more wormholes, Steff mused, they would really be in the deeps of space; far away from anywhere else. The pirates had been moved to a warship and were now Byron’s problem, or to put it another way: Byron was now the pirate’s problem, which was more accurate.
Lieutenant Ling Yi, the Second Mate, was also on the bridge. She kept stealing glances at Steff as she sat there unresponsive, seemingly captivated by the never-ending tunnel of light they traveled through.
“Captain, I can take over the bridge if you wish to return to your quarters.” Li offered. Her words broke Steff out of her reverie, and she glanced over at Li.
“That’s okay. I don’t mind being here for a little while longer.” Steff replied.
“You’ve been sitting there for several hours now Captain. I just thought you might want some rest, or at least to stretch a bit.” Li explained.
“I’ve got a lot on my mind at the moment.” Steff told her. “I need to consider things.”
“Understandable.” Li replied. “I’m going to be here for several more hours, so I can keep an eye on things here. I don’t mind really.” Steff considered her words and then reluctantly stood up. “Blake should be here soon as well.”
“Okay, but let me know if anything happens.”
“Sure thing!” Li replied taking over the command position. Steff walked to the bridge doors feeling rather stiff. How long had she been sitting there mesmerised by the lights?
After leaving the bridge she walked to her quarters thinking about Edwards all the way there. Why was he looking at Space Command data as well as information on all of New Earth’s worlds and colonies? It defied explanation. Had the Separatists somehow managed to take control of his mind? Was he acting under their orders now?
“SARA tell Doctor Philips to come to my quarters when it’s convenient.” Steff ordered.
“Yes Captain.” SARA replied. A short while later Philips turned up looking concerned.
“I was told to come and see you. Are you feeling okay?” Philips asked.
“Yes, I’m fine. I just need your opinion. Please sit down.” Steff replied. Philips sat down on one of the chairs and looked at Steff with interest.
“Is it possible for someone to be taken over or come under control of someone else?” Steff asked.
“How do you mean?’
“Take Lieutenant Frank Edwards for example. Say when he suddenly had that seizure and was in a coma for some time, the Separatists took control of his mind in some way. Is that possible?” Philips looked at her doubtfully.
“You’re still not obsessing about Edwards are you? I thought you were over that. To answer your question: no. Not by any technology I know of, as I have explained before. The Separatists would have to be more advanced than we are, and I know they’re not. There have been experiments into this, as the military is interested in this technology, but so far they haven’t yielded any practical results. The only real way to do this most easily is by mind control techniques similar to brainwashing, but that takes time and it pays to have the subject in close proximity when doing it, not many light years away. Edward’s consciousness couldn’t be taken over or controlled this way.”
“What if he had been subject to mind control before he came on board, and then a signal was sent that activated it?” Steff asked.
“That’s highly speculative. There’s no evidence he’s come under such conditioning. As I understand it he was on New Earth for a long period before joining The Oracle crew. Can I ask why this renewed interest in him?” Philips inquired. Steff sat down so her eyes were level with Philips’s.
“SARA informed me he’s looking at quite extensive data pertaining to New Earth’s military, colonies, settlements and worlds. This includes military deployments. Does that not seem suspicious to you?” Philips sat back and observed Steff.
“So you are watching him? I’m disappointed. Maybe he’s trying to educate himself, or maybe he’s just interested in that sort of information. Personally I don’t see why it’s such a problem. Taking control of someone and doing a data search of New Earth information seems rather a bizarre and long-winded way to get such information, if you ask me. If you’re concerned about it, maybe you should ask him about it. That’s what I would have done.” Philips told her bluntly. “You’re seeing conspiracies in fairly mundane activities. That’s called paranoia. You are not well. My advice is resign your command and check in to a psychiatric institution as soon as you can. Get some help before you harm anyone else. I will be mentioning this in my report to New Earth Space Command.” Philips stood up and began to leave Steff’s quarters.
“I’m not just imagining it! There is something going on and we could all be in great danger.” Steff warned her, but Philips didn’t stop and just shook her head at Steff’s words as she left.
Steff sighed. That hadn’t gone well, but then again what was she expecting trying to confide in Philips? She walked over to her table and saw the datafile she had found outside her door. She picked it up and took it over to the interface. She inserted the file.
“SARA play the datafile.” She waited and nothing happened. “SARA did you hear me?”
“Yes Captain.” SARA responded.
“Play the datafile.” Steff repeated.
“I don’t think you want to see what’s on this file.” SARA replied. Steff opened her mouth in surprise.
“It’s not for you to decide what I watch. Play the file.” Steff ordered.
The screen in her quarters flicked on. It showed someone walking along with what seemed to be a large crowd of people in what appeared to be an urban setting. It was someone obviously holding onto a camera as they walked. There were sounds of what seemed to be a celebration. They walked through an alleyway and came into what looked to be a large civic square surrounded by tall buildings. The square was packed with people. Everyone seemed excited and celebrating something. Beside the person filming a man was lifting up his daughter to his shoulders. At the other end of the square was a sort of stage that the camera became focused on. A small group of people climbed up to the stage. One of them walked up to a microphone.
“The New Earth-backed government has fallen!” he announced. The entire crowd cheered to the news. “Our new government has joined the Alliance of Free Colonies!” Again the crowd cheered. “Even as we speak their fleet is coming to protect us. All that stands in their way is a single New Earth frigate far above us commanded by a young female officer. We’re expecting her to order a retreat or surrender. It’s only a matter of time now.” There were further cheers and chants of “Retreat!” “We are now part of the Alliance of Free Colonies. From this day Esfor is a free colony!” The crowd erupted in louder cheers than before. The camera panned round the square showing all the celebration going on. The camera turned back to the stage. The speaker was about to say something else, but then there was a sudden bright flash, and the screen went dead.
Steff sat there devastated. She buried her face in her hands.
“I told you that you wouldn’t want to see it Captain. I am only trying to protect you.” SARA told her.
“Who left the file there?”
“I’ve already told you I don’t know. I have no record of anyone leaving a file there.”
“How can that be? It can’t have just suddenly appeared there.”
“I know. I have no explanation of how the file got there.” SARA admitted. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Why did you destroy the colony of Esfor?” SARA asked. Steff sat there in silence for a while.
“It was my orders.” Steff replied eventually.
“I was told under no circumstances should I let Esfor fall to the Separatists. When the rest of our fleet was outmaneuvered by the Separatist fleet that left only my ship facing them. I could have ordered a retreat, but that would have meant Esfor would have fallen to them, and as Esfor had the primary spaceship building facilities in the Epsilon Sector, it would mean the entire sector would soon be impossible to hold for New Earth. My ship had a full complement of nuclear missiles. So I decided to destroy Esfor. That way the Separatists would never get their hands on it.” Steff admitted.
“You couldn’t have fired those missiles at the Alliance of Free Colonies fleet?”
“No, their ships had defences that would have stopped the missiles. None of them probably would have got through. No one was expecting me to fire them at the colony itself, not even my crew. When I gave the order the bridge crew looked at me in horror. The weapons officer refused to fire them, so I used the override and fired them myself. The entire world lit up below us with a thousand nuclear explosions. That was when Juanita and the others led the mutiny against me. I and a few others escaped on a shuttle, while the mutineers surrendered to the Separatists. They were probably expecting the Separatists to open fire on us, but I think everyone was in a state of mutual shock at the time.”
“Do you regret your actions?” SARA asked.
“Yes. Of course I do. At the time I was a rather zealous officer who believed in the supremacy of the New Earth imperium, but once you kill millions of people, you can’t take it back. No matter what you do. One side rightly wants to hold me accountable, while the other side gave me a new command…” Steff sat there in silence again.
“Is there anything else I can do?”
“Yes tell Lieutenant Edwards I want to see him.”
to be continued…
Index of previous chapters: The Oracle
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