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POURING over the top of the Syndic minefield, the jumbled warships of the Alliance fleet had accelerated onto individual vectors. For a moment, the sight of it had brought to Geary’s mind the chaotic arrival in Corvus right after he’d assumed command, the Alliance fleet breaking into a wild scramble to attack a few weak Syndic warships. But this time was far different. This time the Alliance warships were following orders, tearing off on courses and speeds that would bring coordinated attacks to bear on every Syndic warship the fleet could reach. Even those officers who didn’t like the way Geary fought shouldn’t have any problems here, with so many targets available for the ships of the Alliance fleet.

With the orders given, the fleet reacting as it should, and no Syndic pursuit force yet showing up astern, Geary had one of those lulls created by the vast distances of a star system. Even with his ships accelerating to point one light speed, it would take more than an hour and a half just to cover the ten light-minutes separating the fleet from that big Syndic formation of damaged warships and repair ships. But the Syndics were also moving away from the Alliance ships, though unable to do so nearly as fast the Alliance fleet was charging at them.

“Estimated time to intercept one point seven hours,” Desjani grumbled. “They’re running, but we’ll still be on them well before those two Syndic battleships can reach us.”

“We’ll have to make sure those battleships are stopped dead before they can smash their way through to any of our auxiliaries.” On Geary’s display, paths arced through space as Alliance destroyers and light cruisers pulled ahead of the heavier combatants, aiming not only for the largest Syndic formation but also smaller groups and individual ships. “Call it two more hours before we take those Syndic ships. We’ll be lucky if we achieve that before the Syndic pursuit comes in behind us.”

“Do you suppose any more Syndic reinforcements showed up here after we left?” Desjani wondered.

“Good question. We can’t assume the totals we saw at Lakota last time we were here reflect what the Syndics have available now and in the pursuit force. But it looks like what’s here is going to fight.” Geary watched some of the damaged warships that had been proceeding independently toward the inner planets alter their vectors to come around and head toward individual rendezvous with the two battleships, trying to build a scratch task force. Counting up the ships involved, and their states of repair, Geary shook his head. He knew how they were feeling, badly outnumbered and not prepared for this kind of battle. His own fleet had faced a similar situation when it had last been at Lakota.

Out of the almost eighty Syndic battleships and battle cruisers the Alliance fleet had once faced at Lakota, at least six Syndic battleships and ten Syndic battle cruisers had been destroyed during those battles. Alliance sensors had also been able to confirm twenty Syndic heavy cruisers destroyed then, as well as dozens of light cruisers and Hunter-Killers. But numerous Syndic warships had been badly damaged as well, some of them by Audacious, Indefatigable, and Defiant as they fought to the last. Those damaged Syndic ships had been left behind here when the Syndic commander took a strike force in pursuit of the fleeing Alliance fleet.

The large formation of crippled Syndic ships included four battleships and no less than seven battle cruisers as well as thirteen heavy cruisers. Trying to close with that formation of badly hurt warships right now in addition to the two combat-effective battleships from the guard force were one more battleship, two battle cruisers, and another three heavy cruisers, all of which had suffered significant damage. Scattered around them were about a dozen light cruisers and HuKs, which had been limping for repair docks, and some of those were also trying to join in the defense of their helpless fellows.

He ran out the course vectors and the times. If all of those ships managed to join together, it would create a weak but dangerous flotilla. But with the distances involved and the propulsion damage so many had suffered, the Syndic defenders could only arrive in staggered waves of a few ships at a time unless they pulled back and tried to form up farther away from the Alliance fleet, at the cost of letting the Alliance ships tear apart the big formation unhindered. That would buy the Syndics a little time, but not enough to save them unless the pursuit force came through that jump point a lot sooner than Geary hoped.

A pair of tugs had been dragging a riddled Syndic heavy cruiser only three light-minutes from the jump point. The unlucky heavy cruiser must have been forced to wait the longest for a tow to show up. Now, with no hope of running away from the Alliance destroyers and light cruisers heading for them, the crews of the tugs abandoned ship, escape pods spitting frantically from the slow, clumsy vessels. Several escape pods erupted from the heavy cruiser itself as well, marking the flight of the salvage crew left aboard the ship.

The Alliance destroyers Jinto and Herebra reached the tugs first and blew them into fragments with close-in hell-lance fire before altering course to head for their next targets. Right behind them, Contus, Savik, and the light cruisers Tierce, Ward, and Lunge rolled past above and to port of the abandoned heavy cruiser, hell lances slamming repeatedly into the hulk until it shattered into multiple fragments. “Let’s see them recover that,” Geary remarked.

“There goes another one,” Desjani noted gleefully, as a solitary Syndic light cruiser whose remaining crew had also abandoned ship came apart under the fire of a half dozen Alliance destroyers.

Struck by a sudden thought, Geary sent out orders. “Ocrea, pick up some of the escape pods from that Syndic heavy cruiser. I want to know what the crew members from that ship can tell us about how long it took the pursuit force to jump after us and anything else they can tell us about the pursuit force.” One of his own heavy cruisers, Ocrea wouldn’t have interrogation facilities anything like those on Dauntless, but he didn’t have the luxury of the time to get those prisoners to a capital ship for questioning. Hopefully some of the Syndic crew members would spill their guts after the shock of having the Alliance fleet reappear and destroy their ship.

It was also time to update the maneuvering plan based on what the Syndics were doing. The Syndic defensive moves had actually simplified the Alliance requirements. As Syndic warships came together, Alliance ships that had been dispersed to hit each one individually could also merge into larger formations. Geary frowned at the display, where the enemy flotilla filled with damaged warships had been tagged with the name Casualty Flotilla. The tactical systems automatically named enemy formations, so he was surprised that one had a specific status designator rather than a generic name like “Flotilla Alpha.” It was always a little unnerving to him when automated support systems acted a bit too human.

He wasn’t trying anything fancy that would require a lot of maneuvering. The subformations would be concentrated into loose, larger formations, which would sweep directly over the largest Syndic formation, the Casualty Flotilla, then onward to hit the less-badly damaged warships trying to form into their own flotilla, then soon afterward the two battleships racing outward from the guard force. “How’s this look to you?” he asked Desjani.

She studied it, face intent. “A series of fast firing runs over the Casualty Flotilla to knock out the weapons on the Syndic warships that have any working? You don’t want to destroy them right away?”

“Not until our auxiliaries are done looting their repair ships. I don’t want to risk debris from destroyed warships messing up our pillaging operation. We can finish off everything when we pull away from the Casualty Flotilla. We’ll have four of our battleships with the auxiliaries then.”

Desjani nodded. “Even the Third Battleship Division should be able to handle destroying enemy ships with all of their systems knocked out. But you need to leave a couple of more battleships or battle cruisers with the formation containing the auxiliaries.”

“Why? I know Warrior has been beat to hell again, but Orion and Majestic can put up a fight and Conqueror is in good shape. I’m sticking Conqueror with them since she’s part of the same battleship division. Those four battleships should be able to handle anything that manages to get through the rest of the fleet.”

Desjani kept her expression controlled and her voice bland. “That’s true, if Orion, Majestic, and Conqueror do not have difficulties engaging the enemy.”

Meaning that their commanding officers might find reasons to avoid battle. He had to admit that Desjani’s diplomatically worded statement was justified. Captain Casia of Conqueror hadn’t inspired any confidence. Commander Yin, acting commander of Orion since Captain Numos had been relieved of command and placed under arrest, made Casia look like a paragon of a combat officer by comparison. And Majestic’s acting commander, who had also gotten his job when his former captain (Numos’s ally Captain Faresa) had been relieved for cause, was such a nonentity that Geary had trouble remembering the man’s face. In a perfect world he would have replaced all of them by now, but a fleet fleeing for its life through enemy territory was far from a perfect world, especially when the fleet’s politics left Geary’s hold on command tenuous enough that he couldn’t afford to be seen acting too high-handedly. Some officers might work against him more vigorously as a result, and other officers would believe such behavior meant Geary was on his way to accepting the role of the dictator they either hoped or feared he would become.

His frown deepened. “I hate to waste a couple of more capital ships just because those three battleships might encounter problems.”

“If the wreck of Audacious does hold prisoners who need to be liberated,” Desjani pointed out, “they’ll need all the shuttles they can get to transfer them off, and ships nearby big enough to hold the liberated prisoners at least temporarily.”

“Good point.” But that still left the problem of two capital-ship commanders who wouldn’t be thrilled to be told to stay back with the auxiliaries. Who might find ways to avoid following his orders, and if they were doing that to race into battle, most of their fellow commanders wouldn’t condemn them for it or approve of Geary raising hell with them for abandoning their escort duty. The doctrine of all-out attack was still too thoroughly engrained in the fleet. He glanced back to where Co-President Rione was sitting, watching events with an unreadable expression. “Madam Co-President, I’d appreciate your advice on how to phrase some orders-”

“I heard you.” Rione broke in. “Thank you for deigning to include me in your discussions.” She paused just long enough for that to sink in. “You’re sending these ships to ensure our own people, recently taken prisoner, are liberated and brought to safety. If any Syndic warships get through to the space near what’s left of Audacious, they could disrupt that action, or even cause some of those prisoners to be killed. What more justification do you need to offer? What more honorable task can a ship be assigned than ensuring our people are safely recovered?”

Geary nodded. “Very well put, Madam Co-President.” That left the question of who to send. He ran his eyes across the display, trying to decide who could be trusted and who wouldn’t take exaggerated offense at what Rione had pointed out was indeed a highly honorable assignment even if it wasn’t in the front of the engagement. He’d already heard indirectly that some officers were regarded as his favorites, and it wouldn’t do to reinforce that impression even if it was in many ways true. He did like certain commanding officers because they were capable as well as aggressive, smart as well as brave, loyal to their duties to the Alliance rather than to political games meant to advance their careers. Captain Cresida, for example…

Whose battle cruiser Furious along with Implacable were the last surviving ships of the Fifth Battle Cruiser Division. And he needed two ships. “I’ll send Cresida. Her ship and Implacable.”

Desjani’s eyebrows shot up, then hastily lowered again. “She’s used to being in the thick of battle.”

“Exactly. She’s proven her ability to carry out this task.”

“I’m glad I’m not the one who’ll be telling her that, sir,” Desjani responded dryly.

“We’re almost a light-minute away from Furious now. That ought to be outside the blast radius,” Geary noted. Desjani grinned.

He changed the plan, let Desjani see it again for a sanity check, then transmitted the changes. On the heels of that, he called Furious. “Captain Cresida, I’m giving Furious and Implacable the most important job in the fleet. I want you to make sure our imprisoned personnel, and our auxiliaries, are well protected.”

Geary barely heard Desjani’s low murmur. “Tell her that you’re counting on her.” She saw his reaction. “It’s true. Say it. Sir.”

The exchange had taken only a couple of seconds. Geary continued the same transmission. “I’m counting on you, Captain Cresida.” It felt absolutely shameless to use that on Cresida. But it was true. Desjani was right about that.

Cresida’s reply took a little over two minutes, given the distance between her ship and Dauntless. To Geary’s surprise, Cresida sounded not angry but both pleased and determined. “Yes, sir. Furious and Implacable won’t let our imprisoned comrades down, and won’t let you down.”

Geary stole a glance at Desjani, who was apparently absorbed in studying her display. Desjani had been giving advice that way almost from the first time he’d met her, Geary realized. Maybe she believed the living stars themselves had sent him, but if she thought there was something Geary needed to know, she’d tell him and keep repeating it until he paid attention. Just as importantly, Desjani wasn’t blindly accepting his plans, instead telling him what she thought needed to be changed. He wondered now if she ever had shown total acceptance of his plans, or if her unquestioning faith in his mission had never gotten in the way of telling him when she thought something should be done differently. “Thank you, Captain Desjani.”

She glanced his way and nodded with a slight smile. “Captain Cresida needs to be handled just so, sir.”

“Just keep giving me advice when I need it.”

This time Desjani looked surprised at the statement. “That’s my job, sir. Though if I may say so, you take it much better than Admiral Bloch ever did.”

He checked the time. Still no sign of the Syndic pursuit force and still over an hour left before the Syndic Casualty Flotilla was overhauled. This was going to be a long day no matter what happened.

“Captain!” a watch-stander called to Desjani. “We’ve spotted escape pods leaving the repair ships in the Casualty Flotilla.”

“What?” Geary thought he and Desjani had said it simultaneously. But the display was indeed showing a swarm of escape pods leaving the Syndic repair ships. “They’re punching out of their ships this early?”

Desjani was frowning, apparently trying to figure out what kind of Syndic trick this was. “Did they figure out how badly we need what’s in the bunkers on those repair ships? Are they going to blow up all of them before we even get within a couple of light-minutes?” she wondered.

Before Geary could answer, his internal communications circuit buzzed urgently. Lieutenant Iger in the intelligence section. It was very unusual to hear from him during a battle since his work dealt with longer-term collection and analysis, everything of tactical importance being automatically shown on the displays before Geary and other commanders. “Yes, Lieutenant?”

Iger’s head within the small pop-up window inclined diffidently. “Sorry to bother you during an action, sir, but-”

“Just tell me, Lieutenant. What is it?”

The intelligence officer looked startled, then spoke quickly. “We’ve confirmed these are standard Syndic repair ships.”

Geary waited, but like the engineers on his own auxiliaries, the intelligence officer apparently expected him to just know things sometimes. “Meaning what? Why are they abandoning ship so early?”

“Because they’re not military, sir.”

“They’re not military?”

Desjani, overhearing, gave Geary a surprised look.

“Yes, sir,” Iger responded. “Syndic major logistics support isn’t handled by combat arms. It’s handled by a different directorate and contracted out to corporations. Our fleet never sees repair ships like these because they’re never supposed to go where they can encounter Alliance warships.”

“They’re civilian?” Geary demanded.

“Yes, sir. Military-related civilian, of course. Totally legitimate targets. But no military personnel aboard, no combat training, no defenses. That’s why they’re abandoning ship. They and their corporations aren’t paid to engage in combat. From what we know, the crews would get in trouble if their actions somehow caused us to inflict more damage on those repair ships. So they’re punching out now.”

“Wait a minute. They want to ensure as little damage as possible is done to those repair ships?” Iger nodded vigorously. “We know that?”

“Yes, sir. From captured records and prisoner interrogations. Most Syndic fleet personnel don’t like the civilian contract people because they don’t think they get proper support from them. The civilian contractors are also paid considerably more, which is probably the real main point of contention as far as Syndic military personnel are concerned. ”

“I’ll be damned.” Geary thought for a moment. “Then they won’t have rigged any traps on those repair ships?”

Iger hesitated, clearly thinking, looked sideways as someone else in the intelligence section spoke to him, then nodded again. “I’d regard that as very unlikely, sir. They’d lose their jobs if their corporations thought they had caused more damage to those ships. It’s safe to assume they’ve shut down all systems and left the repair ships to coast in the hope that we’ll ignore them or just toss a few shots at them as we cruise past.”

“They’re going to be disappointed. Thanks, Lieutenant. Excellent work by you and your people.”

As Lieutenant Iger’s image vanished, Geary turned to speak to both Desjani and Rione, then repeated what the intelligence officer had said. “You’ve never seen these sorts of repair ships?” he asked Desjani.

She shook her head. “Only in briefing documents on Syndic ship types. No, I’ve never encountered one and don’t think I ever ran a simulation with one in it, either.”

Turning back to Rione, Geary addressed her. “Does what Lieutenant Iger said make sense to you?”

“As a civilian?” she asked sardonically.

“Yes.” More importantly, as a civilian after a century of war. Geary’s last experience with other civilians had been almost one hundred years ago, before the war with the Syndicate Worlds began. He’d seen what a century of war had done to the officers and sailors of the fleet, and wondered how it had changed civilians.

Rione gazed at him, seeming to guess the reasons for his question. “Certainly. As much as they’d like their military forces to triumph, as much as they’ve grown to hate the enemy, civilians are still not prepared to stand up to battle. Even if some individuals in those crews were ready to resist, they would have been carried away by the mass of their fellows who only wanted to avoid dying.” Rione caught the expression on Desjani’s face. “They’re not cowards, ” she added in a very cold voice. “Someone who isn’t trained or mentally toughened for combat isn’t going to stand and fight the way military fighting forces are. They’re surely smart enough to know they don’t stand a chance against us.”

Desjani shrugged, her eyes on Geary. “Neither do those Syndic warships heading to intercept this fleet.”

But Geary shook his head at her. “Staying with those ships when they lack any combat training or capability wouldn’t accomplish anything. You or I would at least ensure they weren’t captured intact if we had any suspicion the enemy intended doing that, but dying to no purpose wouldn’t serve our cause.” He jerked his chin toward the display, which showed the two Syndic battleships charging toward them, still hours away from contact. “The Syndic commander is throwing away those ships and crews because he or she can, because those crews will follow senseless orders, even though it’s a total waste. May the living stars help me if I ever decide to waste lives like that just because I can.”

Desjani frowned slightly, her eyes averted as she thought. It had to be a difficult concept for someone raised and trained to believe that honor demanded fighting to the death. For someone who already knew she would do that if necessary. But then she had made that commitment before joining the fleet and lived with it since then. “Yes, sir,” she responded eventually. “I see your point. We expect obedience from those under us, and in return they deserve respect for their willingness to follow orders to the death.”

“Exactly.” She’d actually said it better than he had. He remembered Desjani once telling him that she’d been offered a job at her uncle’s literary agency before she joined the fleet, and once again wondered what Desjani would have been like if she hadn’t been born and brought up amidst a war already ancient to the Alliance.

Rione spoke again, her tone genuinely curious. “There’s something I don’t understand here. You watched the crews of the crippled Syndic warships we’ve already overrun hastily abandoning their own ships, yet didn’t seem to find it dishonorable the way you did the civilians fleeing their ships. Why?”

Desjani grimaced but didn’t turn or answer, so Geary did. “Because the warship crews waited until the last minute to abandon ship,” he explained.

Co-President Rione eyed him for a moment as if judging his seriousness. “Even though the action was inevitable, the fact that they waited made it better than if they’d left as soon as it was certain they couldn’t escape our pursuit. That makes it all right?”

“Well… yeah.” Geary looked toward Desjani, but she didn’t seem interested in helping explain anything to Victoria Rione. “Something might happen. Something unexpected. Maybe we’ll veer off. Maybe some big Syndic force will appear behind us at the jump point or come in through the hypernet gate again and cause us to run. Maybe the ships headed for them in particular will have something happen and drop their pursuit. Maybe they’ll get another weapon working and be able to put up a decent fight. Maybe a lot of things. So you wait as long as possible, just in case.”

“Just in case a miracle happens?” Rione asked.

“Pretty much. Yeah. Because they do. Sometimes. If you keep fighting or remain ready to fight even after it seems hopeless.”

She frowned at him, then lowered her eyes for a few moments in thought. “Yes,” Rione finally said. “Sometimes miracles happen. As long as you don’t give up while any hope remains. I do understand. But at what point does the hope for a miracle change from inspirational motivation to suicidal insanity?”

How to answer that? “It depends,” Geary finally stated.

Co-President Rione’s eyes rose and locked on his. “And it’s the job of the commander to judge the situation and decide whether continuing to hope for a miracle is sensible or insane?”

He didn’t like thinking of it in those terms, but… “Yeah. I guess so.”

Rione’s smile appeared to be half-mocking. “Like coming back to Lakota instead of running through Ixion or trying to stand and fight there? I hope your judgment remains as sound in the future, Captain Geary. You seem to have a talent for sniffing out miracles.”

He nodded back, unsure of how to respond to that, then faced forward again, noticing as he did so that Desjani seemed slightly baffled. “What’s the matter?”

Captain Desjani shook her head. “Nothing, sir.”

“Like hell. Is there something I ought to know?”

“No, sir,” Desjani repeated, then twisted her mouth in annoyance before answering in a low voice. “I’m just… surprised to find myself agreeing with Co-President Rione on anything, sir.”

“You’re both crazy.”

Desjani grinned.

“Update on Syndic warships in the Casualty Flotilla,” the operations watch-stander announced.

Geary checked his display. Of the four Syndic battleships undergoing extensive repairs, only one showed signs of powering up any of its weaponry. The others apparently had their systems so badly damaged or extensively dismantled for repairs that they couldn’t be activated on such short notice. Out of the seven battle cruisers in the formation, only two revealed indications that some of their hell-lance batteries were being charged. The twelve heavy cruisers seemed marginally better off, with five showing weapons activity.

One of the Syndic battle cruisers, its propulsion system less badly damaged than that of its fellows, had begun accelerating away at a painfully slow rate. “Running?” Desjani wondered, her fingers dancing across controls as she checked something. “Not on that vector. He’s trying to join with the other damaged ships forming up ahead of the Casualty Flotilla.”

The Syndics were obviously still hoping for their own miracle that would keep the Alliance fleet from annihilating all of the major Syndic combatants currently within reach.

An alert pulsed on his display, drawing Geary’s attention. “The automated combat system is recommending we volley rocks at the Casualty Flotilla.”

“Kinetic projectiles at ships? Those ships are too badly damaged to maneuver much, but it wouldn’t take much to avoid rocks thrown at them from any significant distance.” Desjani made a face, checking the recommendation herself. “We’d have to throw a lot of our supply of rocks out there to form a pattern that would have a decent probability of scoring any hits.”

“Doesn’t seem worth it to me,” Geary agreed. “Hey, what about Audacious?”

“The recommended pattern would avoid hitting the hulk of Audacious, as long as Audacious didn’t maneuver. Which she could if her tugs yank her off her current course, and walk right into one of our rocks.” Desjani shook her head. “And what if the debris from some of the hits on the warships struck the repair ships that we want to loot? Only an artificial intelligence would think this was a good option. I’d give the combat system a ‘disregard option’ instead of just a ‘recommendation noted.’ Otherwise, it’ll keep trying to refine the recommendation and annoying you with updated alerts about it.”

“Good idea.” He thumbed the right commands, hoping the disregard order would work since automated systems sometimes seemed able to ignore such commands and kept insistently pushing options they had already been told to forget about. Another case of automated systems acting a little too human at times. “Any idea what made that big hole in Audacious? It looks like something blew inside.”

Desjani only glanced at her display. “That was her null-field projector self-destructing. The Syndics don’t have null-field weapons yet, so there’s a multiple-redundant self-destruct capability. Just like for Alliance hypernet keys. We don’t want them to fall into enemy hands, either.”

“Have any of them ever self-destructed when they weren’t supposed to?”

“Not that I’ve heard of. The weapons-design bureau assured us that it can’t possibly happen, so we don’t worry about it.” Desjani spoke with apparent total seriousness, but couldn’t quite keep from smiling at the actual absurdity of her statement. While declarations from the weapons design bureau were supposed to be nonfiction, sailors soon learned from experience to treat them all as fantasy until confirmed by real-world events.

Geary barely managed not to laugh. “Of course not.” His alert chimed to mark the arrival of Colonel Carabali’s plan. He skimmed through it, stealing occasional looks at the display to make sure nothing unexpected was happening.

The Marine plan was simple enough, using detachments from all four of the battleships accompanying the Alliance auxiliaries, which were heading straight for the Syndic Casualty Flotilla of which Audacious was a part. Most of the Marines would assault Audacious, using every shuttle available from the battleships and Captain Cresida’s battle cruisers. In addition, each boarding team from an Alliance auxiliary would be accompanied by a single Marine fire team to check for booby traps on the repair ships or some Syndic fanatic determined to die fighting.

He paused at the situation assessment. “I hadn’t noticed the Syndics evacuating Audacious,” he remarked to Desjani.

She checked her own display, tapping some recall commands, then nodded. “They pulled out when the other Syndics were bailing out of the repair ships. That’s why we didn’t notice it, but if you do a situation replay, you can see it clearly enough. There’s no change in the readings from Audacious, so they didn’t vent atmosphere or anything like that.”

“Let’s hope it simplifies things.” He marked the plan approved and sent it back. Even though the Marines had been told they didn’t need positive approval, a clean paper trail on orders usually made people happy.

Ten minutes later, as Geary watched for the arrival of the pursuit force and felt pressure building in his head from the growing tension, he got another alert, this time a high-priority communication. Geary barely suppressed a groan when he saw the identification tag. Captain Casia of Conqueror, one of the biggest openly pain-in-the-butt senior officers whom he had to deal with right now. But this might be legitimately important. Not likely coming from Casia, but he couldn’t risk blowing it off. He tapped the acknowledge control and a window showing Casia’s frowning face popped into existence. “Captain Geary,” Casia stated heavily, “I’ve been informed that Marines attached to my ship will be employed in an operation to rescue presumed Alliance prisoners being held by the Syndics on the wreck of Audacious.”

Geary glanced at Conqueror’s position. Ten light-seconds away. Not too annoying a delay in communications, even if the communication itself looked like it would be annoying. “That’s correct, Captain Casia,” Geary stated in formal tones, then waited to see what Casia’s problem was this time.

“I’ve also been informed that there is no fleet command oversight for the Marines involved,” Casia ground out.

Geary gave Casia’s image a perplexed look. “That’s incorrect, Captain Casia. I’m exercising command over Colonel Carabali, who is in turn directing the Marines according to my orders.”

Twenty seconds later, Casia’s image frowned even deeper as his reply showed up. “Perhaps oversight of Marines on fleet missions was much laxer before the war. I’m talking about the routine practice of fleet officers conducting direct supervision of Marine officers and senior enlisted who are engaged in ship-boarding operations.”

“What?” The command and control systems allowed higher-ranking individuals to see and hear whatever any particular Marine in battle armor was doing, something that Geary thought an occasionally useful but usually dangerously distracting option. Geary muted his comm circuit and pivoted slightly to stare at Desjani. “Captain Desjani, is it true that fleet officers routinely look over the shoulder of Marines engaged in ship-boarding ops?”

Desjani rolled her eyes in aggravation. “Who brought that up?”

“Captain Casia.”

“That figures. Sir,” she added hastily as if suddenly remembering she was discussing the issue with her fleet commander. Desjani sighed, ran one hand through her hair, then spoke in a monotone. “Such oversight for warship boarding has been routine as long as I’ve been in the fleet.”


“Because it’s feared that Marines boarding a warship will punch the wrong buttons and wreck or blow up important things, including the ship.”

“Am I wrong in assuming that the Marines have orders not to punch buttons unless they know what they’re doing?” Geary demanded.

Desjani shrugged. “Of course they have orders not to punch strange buttons, sir. But they are Marines.”

That was a point, Geary had to admit. Thousands of years of human technological advancement had yet to produce a single piece of equipment that was Marine-proof, or sailor-proof, for that matter. That was one of the main reasons why chief petty officers in the fleet and sergeants in the Marines had no fear of being rendered obsolete, since one of their primary functions remained to yell, “Don’t Touch Anything Unless I Tell You To,” at the more-junior enlisted whenever necessary. But because the Marines did have sergeants, Geary didn’t see what purpose was served by having fleet officers tag along with the Marines via the command and control system. “What level of officers are we talking about? The ones assigned to this oversight of Marines?”

“Ships’ commanding officers,” Desjani replied in the same monotone.

“You’re kidding.”

“No, sir.”

“Who’s supposed to be commanding their ships while they’re supervising junior Marine officers?”

Desjani’s mouth twisted into a bitter smile. “I asked that same question of Admiral Bloch the last time I was assigned to stay on the shoulder of a Marine second lieutenant as he led a platoon aboard a Syndic warship. Admiral Bloch informed me that he had every confidence that an officer of my skills and experience could easily do both things at once.”

Not for the first time, Geary felt a guilty sense of relief that Admiral Bloch had died before Geary had been required actually to serve as Bloch’s subordinate. “I think I can already tell the answer to this, but do you personally see any good reason for doing that?”

Another shrug. “It’s possible to find reasons, but there’s plenty of reasons not to do it, too. I wouldn’t ever do it by choice, sir.”

“That’s what I thought. I wouldn’t, either.” Turning back to front, Geary unmuted his circuit and gave Casia a serious but noncommittal look. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’ll ensure the Marines are aware of the need to consult fleet officers before taking any actions that might impact on the safety or security of the ship they’re boarding.”

Another twenty seconds or so, and Casia’s frown was just as deep, but now accompanied by a slightly flushed face. “There are good reasons for current policies, Captain Geary. Failure to abide by experience gained in wartime could have deadly results for those prisoners we hope to liberate.”

That was as pointed a barb as had been shot his way in a while, Geary reflected. It was true in a way, because he did lack the length of wartime experience of the other officers in the fleet. But also untrue, because he hadn’t learned any wrong lessons. If there was one thing he was certain of, it was that senior officers had no business riding on the backs of junior officers trying to do their jobs. He’d had entirely too much experience dealing with that as a junior officer himself. “Thank you for your input, Captain Casia,” Geary stated in a level voice. “It will be given full consideration, and any actions deemed appropriate will be taken.” Maybe peacetime experience wasn’t the same as wartime experience, but it had taught Geary how to say “get off my back” in totally professional and polite language.

From the look on Casia’s face less than half a minute later, that officer hadn’t had any trouble deciphering the meaning behind Geary’s words. “After the disaster this fleet experienced during our last period in Lakota-”

Geary used his authority as fleet commander and activated his override. If he listened, he’d get mad, and he didn’t want anger clouding his judgment. Wishing for a moment that Captain Casia had his own “disregard option” button, Geary spoke in a hard voice. “If you want to be relieved of command prior to combat, Captain Casia, you can retransmit your last message. Or you can stop beating a dead horse and get on with your job. If you wish to have a personal meeting after this engagement to discuss the command structure of this fleet and your place in it, I will be happy to oblige. Rest assured that the Marines are being competently supervised and that your concerns have been noted for the record. End of transmission,” he added unnecessarily before breaking contact with Conqueror.

Captain Desjani was doing a very good imitation of someone totally unaware that her superior officer was unhappy. Around the bridge of Dauntless, the watch-standers were doing the same imitation with varying degrees of success. They couldn’t have heard anything Geary had said within the sound-deadening field that gave privacy to his conversations with other ships, but any junior officer soon learned the essential art of reading a superior’s mood by unspoken clues like body language.

Geary fumed a moment longer, then took a deep breath and called Colonel Carabali, who eyed him warily. “Colonel, I’m assuming that having fleet commanding officers directly supervising your people going aboard Audacious would be an unwelcome distraction.”

“That’s a safe assumption, Captain Geary,” the Marine colonel agreed.

“I’m also assuming that your senior enlisted and junior officers are capable of preventing any Marines from pushing buttons at random or accidentally overloading Audacious’s power core.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And I’m assuming that if any Marine needs guidance or instructions from fleet personnel on how to deal with anything aboard Audacious they will have both the knowledge and ability to ask for those things.”

“Yes, sir.”

“In short, Colonel, I am assuming that your Marines have the experience, training, and intelligence to carry out their tasks without direct supervision from senior fleet officers. ”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” Geary felt himself relaxing, while Carabali watched him as if she were trying to spot an ambush. “I’d appreciate it if you were to help me demonstrate the truth of my assumptions. If your Marines can take Audacious without blowing up anything or venting the ship’s atmosphere into space, I will be able to provide a solid example of their ability to function effectively without fleet officers breathing down their necks.”

Colonel Carabali nodded. “Of course, sir. There won’t be any screwups.”

“Hell, Colonel, there are always screwups in any operation. Let’s just keep them within reason.”

Carabali finally grinned, then saluted. “Yes, sir. I’ll let my people know of your confidence in them and reemphasize that they should ask for guidance if in doubt.”

“And avoid pushing strange buttons,” Geary couldn’t help adding.

“Absolutely, sir. Because we’ll be assaulting a ship that likely holds many Alliance prisoners of war, I’ve had my platoon and squad leaders instruct their Marines to exercise the highest level of fire discipline. They won’t shoot at anyone or anything unless they know it’s enemy.”

“Good idea.”

“They’re all volunteers as well,” the colonel added. “Since there’s a chance the Syndics might have rigged the ship’s power core to blow once our assault force is aboard.”

Geary felt his teeth clench at the thought. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate their willingness to participate in the operation despite that chance, Colonel. I’ve warned the Syndics not to try anything like that, and warned what will happen to them if they do. Their escape pods can’t outrun our ships.”

The Marine colonel bared her teeth. “Thank you, sir.”

“Thank you, Colonel. Let me know if anything significant about the plan changes.” Carabali’s image vanished, and Geary leaned back with a sigh.

“Another crisis averted?” Rione asked.

“Dealt with, anyway,” Geary responded. “Have you heard anything I should know about now?”

She gave him an arch look, knowing he was referring to her spies within the fleet. “Nothing that can’t wait.” Rione hesitated, then stood up and walked close enough to speak softly. “Only a few of my agents have been able to get quick reports to me. They all say that those opposed to you were thrown off completely by your decision to return immediately to Lakota. Your opponents are now apparently waiting to see what happens before preparing their next moves.”

“Thank you. What do you think? How does it all feel to you?”

“You want my advice?” Rione asked coldly. “Why not ask your flagship’s captain again?”

Oh, for the love of my ancestors. “I ask her questions about fleet operations. Is there something wrong with that?”

“Of course not,” Rione replied in tones that implied the opposite, then answered his first question without missing a beat. “Your enemies in the fleet are quiet and waiting. Until the situation in this star system is resolved, they won’t act for fear that they themselves will be stuck trying to handle a dangerous Syndic trap.”

Geary nodded, keeping his thoughts to himself. If I fail, they have what they need to push for my replacement as fleet commander. Not that there’s likely to be much of the fleet left to command if I fail. And apparently none of them want to try overcoming the Syndic presence in this star system.

His eyes went to the display, looking again for what ought to be there by now. Still no Syndic pursuit force arriving via the jump point for Ixion. Geary’s fingers drummed restlessly on one arm of his command seat. Why hadn’t the pursuit shown up yet? They’d been in this star system for well over two hours now. Every additional minute was a gift, but he distrusted gifts that came for reasons he didn’t understand. While he had told Rione of his hope for three hours’ grace time and had been praying for that much, he’d actually assumed it would be less than two hours before the leading elements of the Syndic pursuit appeared. Even allowing for time needed to reorganize the Syndic flotillas, then to turn around at Ixion once they discovered the Alliance fleet had jumped back here, a decent pursuit should already have shown up in Lakota again.

Another high-priority message, this one from Ocrea, thirty light-seconds distant, which would make for a slow but not intolerable conversation. Geary wondered why the heavy cruiser would be calling him, then remembered that he’d asked that ship to pick up and interrogate some Syndics. “Geary here. Did any of the Syndics talk?”

Ocrea’s captain nodded. “One did. Most of them just parroted the usual Syndic nonsense about it being a privilege to be a citizen of the Syndicate Worlds. But we got one senior enlisted who’s apparently decided that this fleet can’t be destroyed and that anyone trying is going against the will of the living stars. So he’s spilling his guts about whatever he knows, thinking that’s the only way to atone for helping to attack us.” He paused for Geary’s reaction.

“I like that attitude,” Geary noted.

One minute later, Ocrea’s captain nodded. “Me, too, sir. This Syndic sailor doesn’t know much, but he did know that we took out the Syndic flagship during our fight before the jump for Ixion. The senior Syndic CEO didn’t make it off alive, and that left two CEOs of lower-but-equal rank arguing over who would get to command the force pursuing us to Ixion. Our source can’t remember exactly how long, but he said it was at least four hours. Maybe even more than five, while the Syndic flotilla here hung around doing nothing.” The other officer paused for Geary’s reply.

“At least four hours?” Geary questioned. He’d targeted the center of the Syndic formation hoping for that, but hadn’t known if he’d succeeded. “That sailor is certain?”

“Yes, sir. Unfortunately, he can’t tell us anything more specific than ‘big’ about the size of the force that pursued us to Ixion. The only other thing he seems to know that’s useful is that some of the badly damaged Syndic ships left behind here were required to transfer some crew members to the ships chasing after us. This guy thought they were to replace battle casualties, but said a lot of ships were under-crewed these days in terms of skilled personnel. The Syndics seem to have lost a larger than usual number of better-trained people lately, more than their training pipeline can replace for a while.” This time Ocrea’s captain smiled in a very satisfied way.

“That’s great work,” Geary stated with total sincerity. “Do you think any of your prisoners are worth hanging on to for transfer to a ship with more sophisticated interrogation facilities?”

“I really doubt it, sir. Even the one who gave away everything he could doesn’t really know anything beyond what I told you. In my opinion, they’re not worth keeping.” The commanding officer of Ocrea seemed struck by an unexpected thought. “I guess we could just put them back in their escape pods and relaunch them. We’ve done that with others lately, haven’t we?”

Geary nodded, trying not to show his relief. Not too long ago Ocrea’s captain, like every other officer in the fleet, might simply have spaced the Syndic prisoners if dealing with them seemed too difficult. That he had on his own suggested a humane way of getting them off the fleet’s hands was a very good sign that the concept of honor was returning to its old meaning. “That sounds like an excellent plan.”

The other officer smiled. “Any messages from the living stars that we should give this guy to spread around?”

Geary almost jumped on that opportunity, then paused. It felt wrong in some indefinable way, as if someone was giving him a warning he couldn’t hear or see but only sense. “That might not be such a good idea. His own ideas he can spread, but I wouldn’t want to offend the living stars by presuming to speak for them.”

The smile on the face of Ocrea’s captain disappeared. “I wasn’t suggesting sacrilege, sir.”

“I know that. But what we think is okay might not be in their eyes. Right? Better safe than sorry.”

“True.” Ocrea’s commanding officer nodded. “We seem to be in their favor right now, and I wouldn’t want that to change. Thank you, sir. We’ll relaunch the Syndic escape pods within the next ten minutes or so.”

“Sounds good. Thanks again for outstanding work.”

As the window showing Ocrea’s captain vanished, Geary turned to speak to both Desjani and Rione, filling them in on the news before adding his interpretation. “The surviving Syndic CEOs each wanted to be the one who could claim credit for destroying this fleet at Ixion, so they spent hours arguing over who would be in charge. Co-President Rione, don’t the Syndics have some sort of seniority system like our date of rank?”

She shook her head. “CEO positions straddle both civilian and military commands. A CEO’s standing is partially set by his level, but also by political influence.”

“You’re saying their command structure resembles…” He gave Desjani an apologetic glance. “Resembles what this fleet was like? I would have expected the Syndics to have a rigid command structure. Everything I’ve seen reflects that.”

“Up to a certain point,” Rione explained patiently, though with an amused glance at Desjani’s discomfort. “Anyone below the rank of CEO had better do as they’re told and not make waves. But once someone reaches CEO level, the knives come out. Among Syndic CEOs, it’s constant political jockeying for position and higher-level assignments, culminating in those who manage to scheme, backslap, and backstab their way to the Executive Council.”

“It doesn’t sound all that different from our politicians,” Desjani murmured as if to herself, yet loudly enough that Rione probably heard it.

But Rione just smiled coldly as she kept her eyes on Geary. “The CEO who can take credit for killing you will be on a fast track for that Executive Council. Small wonder the two surviving CEOs with the Syndic flotilla wasted precious time fighting for the post of commander. Contrary to what that Syndic sailor thought, they most likely weren’t arguing with each other but each trying to convince the flotilla’s commanding officers that existing orders and regulations meant that he or she should assume command of the flotilla. Those commanding officers would have been terrified of agreeing to follow the orders of someone without good bureaucratic justification that would allow them to claim they’d had no alternative.”

“Not the same as this fleet at all, then,” Geary observed. The Alliance fleet had looked for a leader after Admiral Bloch died, while the Syndic flotilla had tried to agree on what the regulations said. If the fleet had simply bowed to regulations, his own status as commander never would have been questioned since his seniority as a captain dated from a century ago when he received his “posthumous” promotion, considerably earlier by many decades than any other captain in the fleet could claim. But it was easy to imagine that the other problems ship commanders frightened of breaking the rules would have created would have more than balanced out the scales. “We lucked out, and it bought us at least four hours of delay in the Syndic pursuit, maybe more.”

“We didn’t ‘luck out,’ sir,” Desjani objected. “You aimed our first attack on the Syndic formation at the point where you thought their flagship would be.”

Rione spoke pointedly to Geary. “Don’t forget that whoever is commanding the Syndic ships left here is the CEO who lost that dispute over who’d be in command of the pursuit force. That may influence how they’re reacting to this fleet now.”

“Good point,” Geary agreed. “But how will it influence that CEO?”

“Whatever happens here is the fault of the CEO who assumed overall command and took off with the pursuit force. They wanted the command so they could gain the credit, but now it will position them to receive the blame. When that force gets back to Lakota, their CEO is going to be frantic to deal us a serious enough blow to make up for what you’ve done here.”

At least four hours. The tense muscles in Geary’s back relaxed a bit.

His fleet could do a lot of damage with a four-hour head start.

Valiant Jack Campbell | Valiant | THREE