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ELEVEN

WE cant save Opportune. Captain Tyrosian shook her head unhappily. Too much damage, too many systems out. Even if you wanted to tow her, wed have to linger here for several days reinforcing damaged parts of the hull, or the ship would break apart.

Geary checked a report that hed already brought up, listing casualties in the fleet. Opportunes commanding officer and executive officer were dead, along with close to 40 percent of the rest of her crew. He looked at the deck for a moment, not having to fight down anger now because he was filled with despair at the waste. Then he nodded. Well scuttle her. Get anything off her that we can pull off easily and that well need for the other battle cruisers. Youve got four hours while the rest of the crew is evacuated.

Yes, sir. What about Braveheart? Tyrosian asked. Were not sure why shes still in one piece and expect whats left to come apart at the first stress, but I have to ask.

Yeah. Well blow up Braveheart, too. The scout battleship division was now down to a single ship, Exemplar. How about the other badly damaged ships?

Tyrosian frowned as she looked to one side, checking reports on her own display. Heavy cruisers Gusset and Schischak are already under way again though they wont be combat-capable for a while, and Gusset really needs a major yard period to repair her damage. Light cruiser Caltrop has lost a lot of systems but can keep up with the fleet. Four of the battle cruisers, Courageous, Illustrious, Brilliant, and Intrepid, have a lot of damage. Courageous and Brilliant in particular are barely combat-capable, but weve repaired enough propulsion units on them.

Thank you, Captain Tyrosian. Geary slumped backward as Tyrosians image vanished, thinking about the fact that of the four battle cruisers Tyrosian had just mentioned, three were commanded by senior captains who were also in charge of battle-cruiser divisions. Clearly the old spirit of damn the grapeshot, full speed ahead was still alive and well even among people he thought knew better by now. At least the fact that the Alliance fleet had retained possession of the field of battle allowed those ships to be recovered. If the fleet had been forced to retreat, all four of those battle cruisers would have been lost, too.

His stateroom hatch alert chimed, and Captain Desjani entered, looking worn but triumphant. Geary had to remember that by the standards of battles in the last several decades even this victory he thought of as costly was actually quite cheap. Weve got a Syndic CEO, Captain Geary, Desjani reported. Not the one in overall command, who died on one of the battle cruisers that blew up, but her second in command.

I guess we should be grateful that a Syndic commander who made so few mistakes wont be around to fight anymore, Geary noted. How badly was Dauntless hurt?

Desjanis triumph faded into pain. Twenty-five dead, three others critically injured, but we hope we can save them. We lost an entire hell-lance battery, and Im not sure we can get it working again no matter how much duct tape and prayer we use.

Geary nodded, feeling a little numb. If you want anyone off Opportune to make up for Dauntlesss losses, let me know.

This time Desjani grimaced. Opportune is a write-off? Damn. I saw that her captain is dead.

Thanks to following the example of Captains Caligo and Kila on Brilliant and Inspire, Geary added bitterly.

If I may ask, sir, what are you thinking of doing about that?

He gave her a searching look. It sounded like Desjani had carefully phrased her question. I have a nasty suspicion that youre going to tell me that the fleet thinks they did something admirable.

Desjani hesitated, then nodded. Yes, sir. Closing on the enemy with no regard for the odds, that sort of thing. In the eyes of the fleet, they were justified in disregarding your orders.

Meaning the fleet would be appalled if I disciplined them. Geary shook his head. I thought

That wed learned? Desjani asked. We are learning, sir. But we need to keep that spirit of being willing to fight no matter what, too. And you know how hard it can be to change what you believe in. This is the opposite of what Casia and Yin did. They disobeyed orders so they could avoid battle. Caligo and Kila disobeyed orders so they could fight. Everyone condemned Casia and Yin, but if you try to treat Caligo and Kila as if they did the same, very few will agree with you. I respectfully suggest you tread carefully in dealing with them, sir.

Yeah. Thanks for the good advice. A very-high-profile action during a battle, one designed to draw admiration from the fleet as a whole, and one which lured a fellow ship to its destruction as the price of that admiration. He didnt like where that line of thought led, that Caligos and Kilas behavior bore some disturbing resemblances to the thinking of whoever had planted worms in the fleet. But that wasnt even close to being evidence of their involvement in that sabotage. He needed to think this through, discuss it with Rione. Its not like I didnt make plenty of mistakes myself this time.

Desjani frowned at him. The first pass didnt work out perfectly, but everything else went right. He didnt answer, and she frowned deeper. Sir, you keep telling me that youre not perfect, but right now I can tell that youre condemning yourself for not being perfect. With all due respect, youre being inconsistent and overly hard on yourself.

For some reason Geary found himself smiling crookedly at her. With all due respect? How would you say that if you werent being respectful?

Id tell you that you were being an idiot and that you cant afford to let a misstep destroy your confidence. Sir. Which of course Im not saying.

Because that wouldnt be respectful? Geary asked. It sounds like something I should listen to, though. Thanks. Wheres this Syndic CEO?

His escape pod was picked up by Kururi, which is bringing him to Dauntless.

Good. Please ask Lieutenant Iger to let me know when our visitor is ready for a chat with me. Id like you there, too. Desjani nodded. And Co-President Rione.

Desjanis expression closed down completely. Yes, sir.

Hed figured out that when Desjani said yes, sir to him, it could mean a lot of different things, but agreement wasnt one of them. Tanya, shes an important ally. She understands things we dont. Shes a politician. This Syndic were going to be dealing with is also a politician.

So they speak the same language, Desjani stated in a way that made it clear that she thought Rione and the Syndic CEO shared many other qualities. I understand why she might be useful, then. I will inform Lieutenant Iger of your wishes, sir.

THE Syndic CEO in the interrogation room was doing his best to put up a good front, doubtless worried that video of him might be broadcast to the Syndicate Worlds for propaganda purposes. His impeccably tailored uniform bore signs of the CEOs escape from his last ship, and his appearance was rumpled even though his haircut still looked like it had cost as much as a destroyer. Geary glanced at Lieutenant Iger. Find out anything?

Iger nodded, a small smile showing. Yes, sir. He didnt say anything, of course, but I tracked his reactions, including his brain scans as he listened to my questions. He denied knowing anything about an alien intelligence, but I saw fear spikes when I asked.

Fear?

Yes, sir, Iger repeated firmly. No doubt at all. This CEO, at least, is frightened of those things.

Are we sure its not the question that frightened him? Rione asked. The possibility that he might give away a very important secret?

Or just that we know enough to ask the question, Desjani added.

Iger nodded respectfully to both women. I asked the question different ways, Madam Co-President, and watched exactly what parts of his brain lit up. Captain Desjani, his nervousness did increase a great deal when I started asking those questions, but that registered differently than just concern over us knowing. See these records? The lieutenant tapped controls and brought up images of the Syndic CEOs brain, images that hovered in the air before them. See here? Thats the area concerned with personal safety. This area reacts to deception planning, which is when hes working out a lie. You can see how as I asked variations on the questions, his reactions differed. The images flared and dimmed in different areas. Hes got a very deep-seated fear when the topic is raised, something that triggers some of the most ancient portions of the human mind.

Fear of the unknown, fear of the stranger? Geary asked.

That sort of thing, yes, sir, Iger agreed.

But outwardly hes claiming to know nothing.

Yes, sir.

Geary looked over at Rione and Desjani. I think I should go in there and talk to him. Lieutenant Iger can monitor his reactions. Should one or both of you go with me?

Desjani shook her head. Id rather watch from here, sir. Its hard enough to keep from busting through that wall and locking my hands around the neck of that Syndic bastard as it is.

Rione frowned, though in thought rather than directing the expression at Desjani. I think you should try just you first, Captain Geary. One-on-one, he may be a little more prone to speak. If it seems right, I can always come in and apply whatever pressure or encouragement an Alliance politician can add.

All right. Iger came close to him and, with a mumbled apology, carefully attached something tiny behind one of Gearys ears. Whats that?

A short-range comm link operating on a frequency that wont interfere with the interrogation equipment, Iger explained. Well provide you with whatever the equipment shows of the Syndics reactions as you speak to him. Its effectively invisible, though if the CEO knows anything at all about interrogations, hell assume youve got a link to whoever is monitoring him.

A few seconds later, Geary stepped into the interrogation room, sealing the hatch behind him. The CEO sat in one of the two chairs the room boasted, both fastened securely to the deck. As Geary walked toward him, the CEO stood up, his movements abrupt with fear. I am an officer of the Syndicate Worlds, and-

Geary held up one hand palm out in a forestalling gesture, and the CEO broke off his speech but remained standing. Ive heard variations on that plenty of times, Geary informed the CEO. It doesnt seem to have changed much in the last century.

That made the CEO twitch slightly in spite of himself. Im aware that you have identified yourself as Captain John Geary, but-

But, nothing, Geary broke in. I know your superiors have already done a positive ID on me and confirmed who I am. He sat down, trying to look totally confident, and gestured the CEO to sit again. After a moment, the CEO did, his body staying stiff. Its past time we stopped playing games, CEO Cafiro. These particular games have cost both the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds terribly in terms of lives lost and resources wasted in a war you cant hope to win.

The Syndicate Worlds will not yield, the CEO insisted.

And neither will the Alliance. After almost a century, I assume everybody has figured that one out. So whats the point? What are you fighting for, CEO Cafiro?

Cafiro gave Geary a worried look. For the Syndicate Worlds.

Really? Geary leaned forward slightly. Then why are you doing what the alien intelligence on the other side of Syndicate Worlds space wants you to do?

The CEO stared at Geary. There isnt any such thing.

Lie, Lieutenant Igers voice came to Geary like a whisper in his ear.

He hadnt really needed that to know it was a lie. I wont bother going through all of the evidence weve acquired. Some of it the Syndicate Worlds probably arent aware of. Let the Syndic CEO worry about that. But we know theyre there, and we know the Executive Council of the Syndicate Worlds made a deal with them to attack the Alliance, and we know the aliens double-crossed your Executive Council and instead left you to fight us alone. That all added up to a lot of educated guesses rather than known facts, but Geary wasnt going to admit uncertainty at this point.

The Syndic stared back at him, and even Geary could spot the outward signs of his distress without the help of Igers equipment. I dont know what youre talking about.

Partial lie, but he also seemed shocked when you mentioned the double cross. He may not have been aware of that.

Geary gave the Syndic CEO a doubtful look and shook his head. I understand your name is Niko Cafiro. Second Level Executive Grade. Thats fairly high-ranking. CEO Cafiro watched Geary with obvious wariness but stayed silent. High-ranking enough to be second in command of the flotilla we destroyed in this star system. This time the Syndics eyes reflected anger and fear. Weve pretty much evened the odds, CEO Cafiro, Geary stated. The Syndicate Worlds cant confront us with overwhelming superiority right now. Weve destroyed too many of your ships in the last few months.

Hes hiding something, Igers voice whispered. When you spoke of how many ships the Syndics had, it triggered a cascade of mental reactions.

Meaning what? That more Syndic ships than expected were actually out there, or that this CEO was just thinking about the battles in which the Syndics had lost so many ships and not wanting to show any reaction that might confirm Gearys statement? Were close to the border with the Alliance, Geary continued. A few more jumps, and well be in a Syndicate Worlds border system. From there well get home.

That finally drew an overt reaction. Your fleet will be destroyed.

Im going to get this fleet home, Geary repeated evenly.

Everything the Syndicate Worlds has left will meet you in one of the border star systems and stop you, Cafiro insisted, though his voice lacked conviction. This fleet wont make it back to Alliance space.

Maybe theyll meet me, Geary agreed. But the Syndicate Worlds havent had a lot of luck with stopping this fleet so far. Besides, you know as well as I do that I dont need to get the entire fleet home to tip the balance in this war. I only need to get one ship back to Alliance space. The ship carrying the key to the Syndicate Worlds hypernet. CEO Cafiro couldnt stop a flinch. You dont know which ship that is. How are the Syndicate Worlds going to stop that one ship from jumping for Alliance space? And once that one ship gets home, Geary emphasized, leaning a bit closer, the Alliance will be able to duplicate that key, and the Syndicate Worlds will have to destroy their gates one by one to keep the Alliance from using them. It grants the Alliance a huge advantage, and you know what can happen when a hypernet gate is destroyed, dont you?

It had been a shot in the dark, but Cafiro looked away, visibly upset. I thought Effroen should have been told.

Effroen?

The CEO directing the forces left to defend Lakota. She had orders to keep you from using the hypernet gate at all costs, but even though those of us with some inside knowledge of what had happened at Sancere were worried about what would happen if Lakotas hypernet gate was destroyed, we were overruled.

He seems to be sincere, Iger advised Geary. Theres some anger spikes as memory areas light up, consistent with recalling events that upset him.

Geary nodded at the Syndic. Your superiors seem to be willing to run a lot of risks. Very big risks, like the one that got this fleet trapped deep in Syndic territory.

It it wasnt my plan.

The ambush in the Syndicate Worlds home system? The double traitor who offered the Alliance fleet that hypernet key so it would rush into the ambush?

Yes! I never would have taken such a risk.

Geary shook his head. It looked like a sure thing. Youd have taken it. But it backfired.

Because of you! Cafiro yelled, suddenly red-faced and openly furious. If you hadnt shown up- He stopped speaking, his flush fading rapidly as his face paled with fear.

Yeah, Geary agreed. I showed up. The Syndic CEO swallowed and stared at him. Lets think about it. Someone, if thats the right word for members of an intelligent nonhuman species, tricked the Syndicate Worlds into starting this war. Your Executive Council screwed up royally and has refused to admit it. Now, the Alliance will soon have the means to nullify the Syndicate Worlds hypernet system because your Executive Council screwed up royally again. They started the war, and now theyre about to lose it. And youre remaining loyal to them when you could be talking about ways to minimize the damage.

Cafiro plainly did think about it, his eyes shifting before he finally spoke. Are you negotiating?

Im just asking you to consider alternatives.

For the good of the Syndicate Worlds.

Right. Geary nodded, keeping his face calm.

You want the war to end? Cafiro challenged.

You and I both know that humanity faces another enemy. Maybe its about time we stopped killing each other the way that enemy has tricked us into doing.

More thinking, Cafiro avoiding Gearys eyes again for several seconds. How can we know youll keep your word?

Theres proof of that in every star system this fleet has traversed since we left the Syndic home system. Dont try to pretend you havent heard.

CEO Cafiro pushed his palms tightly together, pressing the tips of his fingers to his mouth as he thought again. Its not enough. Not now. I tell you honestly, as long as theres any chance that you can be stopped, no one will move against the current membership of the Executive Council.

Hes telling the truth, Lieutenant Iger reported in an astonished voice.

And when this fleet does make it home?

The Syndic CEO eyed Geary. Then the failure will be huge, the costs incalculable, the consequences too serious to contemplate. Even then, the current membership of the Executive Council wont negotiate. They cant afford to because that would assign the failure to them.

Geary nodded, remembering how Rione had stated the same thing.

But, Cafiro added, his face hard, after something like that, the rest of the Syndicate Worlds would not be willing to sacrifice themselves to protect the Executive Council from its failures.

Ask him if that means revolt, or new members of the Council, Rione urged.

Geary nodded as if to Cafiro, but also to Riones words. Are you saying thered be a revolt, or that wed be dealing with new members of the Council?

Cafiros eyes shifted. I dont know.

Lie, Iger advised.

Lets say its new members, Geary pressed. Will they be willing to negotiate an end to this war?

Under those conditions? I think so. Depending on the terms.

Truth, Iger stated.

Would they work with us to deal with the aliens and stop pretending they dont exist?

Yes, I- Cafiro flushed red again, this time with apparent self-anger at having finally blurted out an admission that he knew of the aliens.

We both already knew the truth, Geary said. We want the same thing. An end to a senseless war and a united front against something that threatens humanity. That should be grounds for working together.

The CEO nodded once.

Appeal to his self-interest! Rione demanded. Not the best interests of humanity or the Syndicate Worlds! His self-interest! He didnt become a Syndic CEO by being self-sacrificing!

She had a point. Geary forced a small smile. Of course, when I speak of working together, Im talking about with someone we know. Someone who understands the issues.

His brains reward centers are lighting up, Iger observed.

Cafiro nodded again, this time much more firmly. As you say, we need to think in terms of mutual benefit.

Naturally, Geary replied in an even voice, though he wanted to spit. Why couldnt Rione have done this directly? But she would have been tarred like any other current Alliance leader with all the hatred and distrust engendered by decade after decade of war. He, the outsider even now, had a different status. But he didnt know the right words, and Rione wasnt feeding them to him, maybe assuming hed somehow know them. Maybe he did. Geary dredged up memories of a superior officer hed suffered under for a few years, a man who had nearly driven him from the fleet with his politicking and attempts to manipulate those around him. He just had to remember the sort of things that he had said. The Alliance needs the right people to work with, Geary stated, emphasizing the word right just enough.

Cafiro almost smiled, but his eyes lit with eagerness. Yes. I know others who could work with me. With us.

Cafiro favored Geary with a tense smile. Of course, theres not much I can do as a prisoner.

It seems we understand each other. More than Geary wanted to. But then this particular Syndic CEO had been ambitious and power-driven, or he wouldnt have been second in command of that flotilla. It followed that hed react this way when offered the sort of deal Geary had implied. Other Syndic CEOs, perhaps less self-centered and more loyal to things other than their personal bottom line (like the CEO in charge of Cavalos Star System), would be far better leaders to deal with. But Geary had to use the weapons he had available.

Even very distasteful weapons. Weapons that were negotiating for their own freedom but hadnt bothered yet to ask about the fates of other Syndic survivors from the flotilla that had been destroyed. Geary tried to keep his face calm even as he sympathized with Desjanis desire to choke this Syndic CEO until his eyes popped. I think it will benefit all concerned if you are released. Before I decide to let Desjani in here so we can strangle you together. He couldnt resist mentioning the other Syndic survivors in a pointed reminder. Weve taken no other prisoners here. Some of the escape pods from destroyed Syndicate Worlds warships are damaged but appear able to reach safety.

Ah of course, Cafiro agreed after a brief hesitation.

The Syndicate Worlds will be hearing from us, CEO Cafiro. After this fleet gets home. Geary stood up to end the conversation and left the room.

Hes nervous, Lieutenant Iger remarked when Geary rejoined the others. Doubtless wondering whether hes really going to be released.

Will he really stir up trouble for the Syndics if we let him go? Geary asked Iger and Rione. Both of them nodded. Then get him off this ship, please, Lieutenant Iger.

Yes, sir. Hell be back in his escape pod and relaunched within half an hour.

Geary led Desjani and Rione out of the intelligence spaces. I think Id rather deal with the aliens, he remarked, not sure how much he was joking.

You might, Rione replied with absolute seriousness. If our speculations are right, these aliens acted against us and the Syndics because of their experiences with the Syndic leadership. They might simply want to be left alone or to feel secure against us. Remove the threat of human aggression, and those aliens would have an immense amount of space available to them on their other borders.

Desjani, talking as if speaking to herself, gazed down the passageway. Unless theres something else on their other borders.

Geary frowned, then felt a sudden pang of worry. If theres one nonhuman intelligence out there

There could be more. Almost certainly are more, Desjani murmured. She looked at Geary. We have to understand this enemy, and thats a very important possibility. They might feel penned between potential foes. They might even be fighting a war or wars unimaginably far away from our own battles with the Syndics. Maybe they need to keep us tied down because of that, because they need to protect their flanks. Maybe that means weve got potential allies against these creatures. Or even worse potential enemies.

Rione looked like shed swallowed something unpleasant. Thats a real possibility. We have no way of knowing if its true. Theres too damned much we dont know.

Weve learned a lot. Well learn more. He hoped that was true, anyway.

THE expanding balls of debris that had been the wrecks of Opportune, Braveheart, the heavy cruiser Armet, and the light cruiser Cercle were well behind the Alliance fleet now as it proceeded toward the jump point for Anahalt and Dilawa. Geary had kept the fleets speed down to point zero four light to make it easier for badly damaged ships like Courageous and Brilliant to keep up, hoping theyd soon get more propulsion units repaired. No more attempts to plant worms in fleet systems had occurred. Geary wondered if that was because those responsible for the earlier attempts were busy dealing with damage to their ships, or were trying to find new ways to plant the worms, or were rethinking that tactic after the previous attempts had backfired by alienating most of the fleet. It seemed very unlikely that theyd given up.

He still wasnt certain which star to jump to next. Nor did he feel like thinking of that at the moment. The fleet had lost a lot of personnel as well as several ships in the latest battle. Hed spent a long time in the fleet at peace, a hundred years ago, and fought one hopeless battle before going into survival sleep. Others had fought countless battles during the next century, growing accustomed to losing ships and men and women in large numbers. Geary had kept trying to avoid dealing with that but realized he couldnt keep it up. He had to accept the cost that even victories required, and he needed to call up the personnel records, which would tell him the private prices the people he knew now had paid before he had known them. He owed that to them.

Geary called up the personnel files and read through them. Captain Jaylen Cresida. Home world Madira. Her first fleet assignment had been as gunnery officer on the destroyer Shakujo. Married five years ago to another fleet officer. Widowed three years ago when her husband had died aboard the battle cruiser Invincible when the ship was destroyed while defending the Alliance star system of Kana against a Syndic attack. Not the same Invincible that this fleet had lost at Ilion, but the previous ship to bear that same name.

Cresida had told him that if she died, she had someone waiting for her.

Geary closed his eyes for a moment, trying to dull the pain inside as he read the dry report. Then he read more, forcing himself to confront the costs of this war that had changed the Alliance he knew and helped forge the personalities of the people around him.

Cresidas mother and brother were also casualties of the war, the mother dead when Jaylen had been only twelve. The older brother had died a year before Cresida joined the fleet. Not wanting to tally the losses through the generation before that, Geary stopped looking back through the file.

Steeling himself, Geary pulled up Captain Duelloss file. His wife was a research scientist in a star system safely back from the front line, but Duelloss father and an uncle had died in the war. His oldest daughter would be eligible for call-up by the draft next year.

Captain Tulev had lost his wife and three children to a Syndic bombardment of their home world.

And Captain Desjani. Shed told him that her parents were still both alive, and that was so. Desjani did also have the uncle shed spoken of a few times. But shed never mentioned the aunt whod died in ground fighting on a Syndic world. Nor the younger brother dead six years ago in his first combat engagement.

He remembered the young Syndic boy with whom Desjani had spoken when the refugees from Wendig were brought aboard, the way Desjani had treated the boy and the way shed looked at him as he moved to defend his family. Had she seen her little brother in that boy?

Geary spent a long time staring at the display, then punched in the other commands hed never had the nerve to face. The records of what had happened to his family.

Gearys popped up. A lot of them. Hed left no wife or children behind, something for which hed often given thanks. But hed had a brother and a sister, cousins, an aunt. Most of them had children. Many of those had ended up in the fleet. Geary remembered his grandnephews bitter words, that it was expected that Gearys would join the fleet. A lot of them had done that, and a lot had died.

He was still sitting there, trying to take it in, when his hatch alarm sounded. Come in.

Captain Desjani entered, then halted, watching him. Whats wrong?

Just reviewing some files.

She hesitated for only a moment, then came around behind him to read over his shoulder. Desjani was silent for so long that Geary began wondering what to do, then he heard her speak softly. Havent you seen these before?

No. I didnt want to.

Weve all paid a price in this war. Your family has paid more than its share.

Because of me, Geary ground out. Desjani didnt answer, apparently unwilling to deny something she had to know was true. Why didnt you ever tell me about your brother?

She was quiet again for a while. Its not something I talk about.

Im very, very sorry. You know I wouldve listened.

The reply took a moment to come. Yes, and I know you wouldve understood. But I thought you had enough things to worry about. My familys losses arent special.

Yes, they are, Geary objected. Every single person is special. A hundred years of this, a century of life after life cut short in a war thats gone nowhere. What a damned waste.

Yes. He felt Desjanis hand rest on his shoulder and squeeze lightly, the gesture of a comrade sharing pain, and maybe something more.

Geary brought his own hand up to cover hers and grip it. Thanks.

You need everything we can give you.

Suddenly it all felt like too much. His responsibilities, the pain the war had brought to so many, the feelings for Desjani that he had to keep as hidden as possible. He had to get Dauntless home, he had to get that Syndic hypernet key back to the Alliance, but he had to do so much more as well. People expected him to do so much more. Geary felt as if he would drown under the pressure, his only lifeline the hand resting on his shoulder. He dropped his grasp and stood up, facing her. Tanya

Yes, she repeated, though he wasnt sure if she knew what it was he couldnt say, or if she knew and was trying to deflect it. Its so much for one man to carry. You will end it, though, Desjani stated firmly. Youll end this war, youll save this fleet and the Alliance.

Every word felt like a nail in his coffin. For the love of my ancestors, please dont give me that speech!

Its not a speech, Desjani insisted.

Yes, it is! Its a fantasy about who I am and what I can do!

No. Its true. Look what youve done already! Desjani gestured to the display. You can stop this. I know it must be hard to be chosen by the living stars for such a mission, but you can do it!

You have no idea how it feels to have that kind of demand placed on you!

I see the effect it has on you, but I know you can handle it. You wouldnt have been chosen otherwise.

Maybe somebody made a mistake! Geary almost yelled. Maybe Im not able to save the entire damned universe by myself!

Youre not alone! Desjani was clearly upset now, her face as she gazed at him twisted with hope, fear, and something deeper, all jumbled together.

It sure feels like it! Geary swung his own angry hand toward the display now behind him. All of those dead, and people expecting me to end that. How can anyone accomplish that? I cant do this! Had he ever actually said those last four words to anyone, or had the thought only echoed inside him since hed been forced to assume command of this fleet?

What else do you need from me? she asked desperately. Of course you need help. Tell me, and its yours. Ill do anything. Desjani looked appalled as the last words slipped out, and she stared at Geary.

His despair drained away as Geary stared back at her. Something that had been at least partly hidden now lay in the open between them. Anything?

I didnt- She swallowed and spoke with obviously forced calm. Im without honor now. I know that.

Stop it, Tanya. Youve got honor to spare.

An honorable woman would not feel this way about her commanding officer! She wouldnt speak of it. She would not be willing to- Desjani bit off her words and stared frantically at Geary again.

He could reach out and have her. Right this very moment. Geary looked down at his hands, thinking of the price so many others had already paid. Hed been willing to use Victoria Rione when shed offered herself to him, just as Rione had used him. But he couldnt do that to Tanya Desjani. Even though Desjani and almost everyone else would excuse him for it, justifying to themselves whatever was done by the hero sent from the past. But he couldnt do that to her. The very thought of it revolted him. That, more than anything, told him that his feelings for her were real, that he wasnt just reaching out again for any safe port when the storms of his responsibilities grew too rough. I wont take your honor, he whispered.

You already have it, Desjani replied in agonized tones.

No. Ill take nothing from you that you dont freely choose to give.

Its given. I swear I didnt seek that, I swear I tried to fight it, but it has happened.

Geary looked up again and saw her despair. Either well live to reach Alliance space, or well die on the way. If we live

Desjani nodded. I can resign my commission. It wont be enough to return my honor or erase the burden Ive put on your own, but-

Resign your commission? Tanya, you live to be a fleet officer! You love it! I cant allow you to give that up on my account!

An officer who cannot carry out her duties according to regulations is required to- Desjani began, her face now stiff.

Ill resign, Geary broke in. As soon as we get home. I never wanted this responsibility, and once I get this fleet home, no one can demand more of me. Once Im no longer a fleet officer, your honor cant be questioned, and-

No! Desjani now appeared horrified as she gazed at him. You cant! You have a mission!

I never asked or wanted-

It was given to you! Because the living stars knew you could do it! Desjani backed away, shaking her head. I cant allow my feelings to influence you this way. Too many people are depending upon you. If I caused you to shirk that mission, I would surely be damned by them and deserving of it. Say you wont do that. Say you didnt mean it. He looked back at her silently. Say it! If you do not, I swear I shall get this ship home to Alliance space, then go as far from you as human space allows! Geary struggled for words, and Desjani took another step backward. If the temptation I offer you has to be removed from this ship now, Ill do that. Ill do whatever I must.

He finally found his voice again. No. Please. Youre Dauntlesss commanding officer. You belong on her. I I promise you I wont resign until this war is over. The words felt acidic in his mouth, the thing he had never wanted to accept even though he knew so many expected it of him.

Your promise should not be to me, Desjani replied, her face and voice calmer now.

It is, he insisted. Ive avoided making it because it scared the hell out of me. But the thought of not seeing you scared me more. Congratulations.

I I didnt-

No, you didnt. You never would have tried to manipulate me on purpose. Unlike Victoria Rione, he realized. I made the choice. Ill carry out the mission. As long as you dont resign your commission. I need you with me if Im going to have any chance of succeeding. And when my mission is done, and Im no longer in command of this fleet, Ill finally say the words that I wish I could say to you now.

Desjani nodded to him. Thank you, Captain Geary. I knew youd do what you had to do.

As opposed to what I want to do right now. Amazingly, she laughed. If you and I did what we wanted to do at this very moment, wed be different people. But hard as it is, I must stand here instead of stepping closer to you. Much closer. No. You have my honor, I have your promise. If the gift of my honor gives you the strength to do what you must, its a small price for me to pay.

You think of it as a price, then? Geary asked.

Desjani nodded as her laughter faded. My honor is the thing of greatest value that I possess. That I used to possess. I know you will not use it against me, and I know it is safe in your hands. But there have been times when it felt like my honor was all I had left. I regret losing it.

Then I promise you that I will keep your honor safe until I can return it.

But it was given. To my shame but it was given. Geary shook his head. I want to return your honor, and you want me to keep it. Theres a way to do both if thats what you want.

How could I have both-? She seemed shocked, looking away for a moment before focusing back on him. You mean that?

I cant come out and say how I feel, just like you cant, not until this war is over and Im no longer your commanding officer, but I swear on the honor of my ancestors that I meant it.

Desjani blinked, swallowed again, then gave Geary a stern look. You must know something, Captain John Geary. Right now you are my fleet commander, and I do as you say and defer to you. You are on a divine mission, and while that lasts, I will follow you to hell itself on your command. But when all is done and the war is over, a man would come to me with my honor and himself. Not like any other man, not even then, but a man, and I will not be subordinate to any man in my own life or my own home. I will only have a man as a partner, an equal, to be beside me in all things. Any man must agree to that if he someday wishes to share a life with Tanya Desjani.

Geary nodded. Any man who really knew Tanya Desjani would gladly commit to those conditions and promise to honor them.

She gazed back at him, then smiled. It is very hard, and I fear that itll be harder still before all is done. But when the day comes that your mission is fulfilled, I will accept my honor back and all that comes with it.

All he had to do was get the fleet the rest of the way home and win the war that had been raging for a century. But hed never thought he could get this far, do what hed been able to do. If he could somehow end the war, end the deaths

And, for the first time since hed been awakened from survival sleep, he knew without any doubt that he had something other than duty to live for. Theyd talked around it, they might never again discuss it even indirectly while the war lasted, but they each knew how the other felt and what theyd promised each other. In that case, Captain Desjani, lets take a look at the star display and figure out our next move on the way home. Weve got a fleet to save and a war to end.

Valiant

Valiant

Valiant


| Valiant | Published by the Penguin Group







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