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HE hadn’t seen Captain Numos since after the battle at Ilion. Numos didn’t get up when Geary’s image appeared in his stateroom/cell, instead eyeing Geary with the same mixture of contempt and dislike that he’d shown from their first meeting. “What do you want?”

Refusing to let Numos get to him, Geary shook his head. “As I’m sure you’ve already heard, the crew of a shuttle, four Marines, and two fleet officers are dead. Do you think I care right now how you act?”

“Are you accusing me of being involved?”

“No.” The direct answer seemed to startle Numos. “I just want you to consider the implications. Captain Casia and Commander Yin were silenced to prevent them from saying things. If you could say anything, you should be worried about what your alleged friends were planning.”

Numos snorted derisively. “I’m supposed to trust you instead? How do I know you didn’t arrange that little accident to get rid of two officers who had challenged your authority?”

“If I had wanted either of them dead,” Geary pointed out, “I had full justification to order it openly under fleet regulations. Captain Casia was on his way to face a firing squad. Why would I have destroyed a shuttle to kill a condemned man?”

“You’ve already eliminated Captain Franco, Captain Faresa, Captain Midea, Captain Kerestes… Have I missed anyone?”

Geary sat down, gazing intently at Numos. “You aren’t that stupid. You know those deaths happened in action. You know that Midea caused her own death. I’ve been wondering how you kept her under control.”

Numos shrugged. “She respected legitimate authority.”

He’d wondered if his dislike of Numos had tinged his memories, making them worse. Apparently not. “Maybe you are that stupid. Your friends have cold-bloodedly murdered members of the Alliance fleet.”

“I thought you said it was an accident.”

“Actually, no, I never said that. You’ve used the word repeatedly. Funny that you should be so certain.” Geary’s thrust went home as Numos’s eyes glittered with anger. “I don’t know whether you think there’s some tiny chance that you would be accepted as fleet commander if I were gone. There isn’t. I don’t know whether you think I plan on making myself dictator when we return to the Alliance. That isn’t going to happen.”

“I’m supposed to believe you?”

Geary studied Numos for a few seconds. “I did think you’d show a little more emotion over the deaths of fellow officers.” Numos gazed back impassively. “If any more accidents happen, you’re going to be in an interrogation facility, Captain Numos. I know you’ve received training on wording your replies to fool even brain scans, but we’ve got some very good interrogators in this fleet. I also know that while I can’t justify subjecting a fleet captain to interrogation without some grounds right now, another accident will arouse enough concern for me to do so.” Numos reddened but remained silent. “Tell your friends.”

Geary stood up, triggered his controls, and vanished from Numos’s stateroom.

“I told you that it would be a waste of time,” Rione remarked, lounging back in her seat. She hadn’t been part of the virtual meeting, but she’d been able to observe the entire thing.

“I had to try.” Geary shook his head. “I don’t know how I’ve managed to avoid ordering Numos shot and dumped out of the nearest air lock.”

“Black Jack could do it.” Rione seemed thoughtful. “Black Jack gets to make his own rules. I think Black Jack should order Numos into interrogation now.”

“So you told me.” Geary sat down, rubbing his forehead. “I’ve sounded out some other officers. They all agree that I could get away with it, but it would both frighten those who think I want to be a dictator and encourage everyone who wants me to be a dictator. Both things could trigger more events that I really don’t want. I need more justification.”

“That justification may involve more deaths,” Rione emphasized.

“I know that. Acting prematurely might cause even more. I take it your spies still have nothing to report?”

“No.” She frowned. “The fleet is buzzing over the shuttle accident, but it all seems to be surprise and conjecture over how the fuel-cell failure could have happened. No one seems to be openly implying that you might have had a role in it, since everyone else seems smarter than Numos and knows you didn’t need to blow up a shuttle if you wanted Casia and Yin both dead. The silence is deafening among your opponents in this fleet. I wish I knew what that meant.”

He studied her for almost a minute before asking a question that had been bothering him. “Why didn’t you ever tell me that some of those opposed to my commanding this fleet were motivated by fear of my becoming a dictator?”

Rione made a dismissive gesture. “Because their exact motives didn’t make any practical difference.”

You were willing to kill me to prevent me from becoming a dictator.” She didn’t answer, and Geary felt the need to amend his statement. “I suppose you still are willing to do that if you think it becomes necessary. But I think their exact motive did matter if it was the same as yours. Why didn’t they contact you since your loyalty to the Alliance is so well-known? Or did they contact you?”

She laughed. “Getting paranoid? I’ll make a politician of you yet. No, John Geary, they didn’t. I’m convinced that our motives only partly coincided at any point. That is, both they and I don’t want you to be a dictator. But I also want the elected government of the Alliance to remain in power. I suspect that your foes such as the late Commander Yin and her friends believe in the need for a military dictator. They just don’t want you to be that dictator.”

That made sense. “Like Falco. Some other senior officer who thinks the way to save the Alliance is to overthrow its government.” Rione nodded. “I have increasing trouble believing that they are backing Numos though. That interview just confirmed for me that he’s too arrogant to make a decent pawn, and too dumb to function on his own. But he makes trouble for me, and that probably makes him useful to them.”

“That could well be true,” she said. “I think your assessment is right, that the conspirators are happy to take advantage of Numos’s hostility to you but that Numos is too prideful and unimaginative ever to work as a puppet for them. I suppose in that light there’s not much sense in pushing to have him interrogated quickly.”

“Yeah. I’ll bet he doesn’t know a thing that’ll help us.” Geary stared at the star display, feeling a need to bring something else up. “How many officers in this fleet are willing to back a dictatorship? I’ve been told it’s a strong majority, so maybe I should ask how many aren’t willing to do that, since that seems to be a much smaller number. Duellos wouldn’t, I don’t think Tulev would, or Cresida-”

“Don’t be so sure about Cresida,” Rione objected. “And I’m a little uncertain about Tulev now. Even before you miraculously returned from the dead, the civilian government was increasingly worried about the loyalty of its officer corps. It’s our own fault. We know that. They’re on the front lines, watching their friends and comrades die, and we can’t tell them that it’s bringing us any closer to victory. It’s been that way for a century. Their grandfathers and grandmothers, their fathers and mothers, watched comrades die or died themselves in the same war. I’m sometimes surprised that our elected government has managed to survive a war this long.”

“Has our government made that many mistakes?”

She waved an angry hand. “It’s made its share of mistakes. So has the military. But it’s not about that. It’s about frustration. A century of war and no end in sight. People want something, anything, that would hold out hope for an end to it.” Rione shook her head at Geary. “And then you show up. The hero who legend decreed would return to save the Alliance in its hour of greatest need. Do you wonder that so many are looking to you?”

“That hero is a myth,” Geary insisted.

“Not entirely, no, and in any event, what you think scarcely matters. It’s what everyone else thinks. You can save the Alliance. Or you can destroy it. It took me a while to put that together. You embody the ancient duality, the preserver on one side and the destroyer on the other. I saw the destroyer at first, then I saw the preserver, and now I see both.” She shook her head again. “I don’t envy you having to personify those two contrary roles, but that’s what comes with being the legendary hero.”

“I never volunteered to be a legendary hero!” Geary stood up and began pacing angrily again. “You did this to me, the government, while I drifted around Grendel Star System in survival sleep, making me into every schoolkid’s greatest idol so you’d have something to keep inspiring people to fight.”

“The Alliance government created a myth, John Geary. You’re real, and you have the real power to preserve or destroy the Alliance. If you haven’t fully accepted that yet, do it now.”

He stopped pacing and gave her a sour look. “I’ve never been the type to believe I was sent by the living stars to save the universe, or even just the Alliance.”

Rione raised an eyebrow at him. “That may be the only thing that keeps you from destroying the Alliance. Maybe that’s why you were chosen.”

“Don’t tell me that you’re starting to believe that, too!” Geary made a frustrated gesture. “I get too much of that as it is.”

“I thought you liked it when your special captain gazed at you with those worshipful eyes,” Rione observed.

“No, I don’t, and no, she doesn’t. And why the hell are we talking about Captain Desjani all of a sudden?”

Instead of answering, Rione simply stood up. “I have some other business to attend to. You’re still going to jump the fleet to Branwyn as scheduled?”

“Yes,” Geary snapped, still aggravated with her. “We’ll be at the jump point in four days, barring any more ‘accidents. ’ ”

She was heading for the hatch but paused to look back at him. “I would have tried to stop it if I’d known someone was going to sabotage that shuttle. Yes, I thought Casia and Yin should die because of their actions and because I saw them as a threat to the Alliance, but I wouldn’t have let a number of innocent people be killed.”

He stared at her. “It never occurred to me to think you would have.”

“Sooner or later, it would’ve occurred to you.”

Geary kept looking at the hatch after she had left, realizing that she was right, and wondering why sometimes his allies scared him as much as his enemies.

THE transmission from what had once been the habitable world in Lakota Star System was streaked with interference, the sound portion garbled by static. Geary tapped the control to apply enhancement filters, and the image cleared, the sound now audible, though with occasional odd gaps as attempts by the software to guess which word to use came up blank.

A man stood in the front of the image, behind him a table at which a half dozen other men and women sat. All of them looked as if they’d been wearing the same clothing for days, and as if those days had been arduous ones. They were in some room without visible windows, whose construction and fittings conveyed a feeling of being an underground shelter.

The man spoke with weary desperation, blinking with fatigue. “We are appealing to any ships in this star system to carry news of our disaster to authorities who can provide aid. Lakota Three is undergoing intense storm activity. Estimates are that between ten and twenty percent of the atmosphere is gone. Lakota star’s output may be fluctuating, causing more havoc on this world. Most electrical systems on the planet were destroyed by the energy pulse that struck us. We’re incapable of estimating the number of dead but it surely runs into many millions. We’ve been unable to establish contact with anyone in the hemisphere that faced the energy pulse. The survivors in this hemisphere are in desperate need of food, shelter, and other necessities. Please notify anyone who can help.”

The image stuttered, then the message began repeating.

Geary shut it off, letting out a long, despairing breath. “There’s nothing we can do.”

Desjani nodded gloomily. “We can’t even run shuttles down into that atmosphere right now without risking their loss.”

“Did you find any signs of Alliance prisoners of war on the planet?”

She shook her head, looking depressed now. “A few marginal indications. But even if they were there, we couldn’t get to them. The planet is going to be a hellhole until the atmosphere stabilizes again.”

Geary tapped his communications controls. “Authorities on Lakota Three, this is Captain John Geary, commanding officer of the Alliance fleet. We deeply regret our inability to offer immediate assistance, but have no capability for disaster relief. We will notify any and all Syndicate Worlds’ entities encountered of your need.” It occurred to him that with so many electronic systems destroyed, the authorities on Lakota Three might have no idea what was going on above the world’s atmosphere. “Be advised that a few Syndicate Worlds’ civilian ships survived the energy pulse and are heading for jump points out of this star system. I have given orders that they not be engaged by my units and have provided them with clear records of the disaster here to assist authorities in other Syndicate Worlds’ star systems in responding to your need. May the living stars provide for you and may your ancestors offer you what comfort they can.”

He ended the transmission, then looked to the communications watch. “Try to punch that through to the origin of the distress message, and set it to repeat until we leave this star system. Also forward that distress message to the Syndic merchant ships heading out of the star system.” With a fleet configured for war, there wasn’t much else he could do. “Captain Desjani, I’m going to hold a small meeting in one hour. I’d like you to be there.”

“Of course, sir,” Desjani acknowledged. “Is there anything I should do to prepare for the meeting?”

“Just bring your brains and your common sense.”

ONE hour later, Geary looked around the conference room, where he, Captain Desjani, and Co-President Rione were physically present and Captains Duellos, Cresida, and Tulev were virtually present. To the naked eye, all six figures appeared identical, but the occasional extra couple of seconds’ delay in reactions from the three who were attending via conferencing software betrayed their virtual nature. “I wanted to talk to you because you’ve all been told about our belief that there’s a nonhuman sentient species on the other side of Syndic space.”

“Belief?” Captain Cresida questioned. “From the evidence I’ve seen, it’s a lot stronger than a belief.”

“And there’s more evidence that I haven’t had a chance to share before this.” Geary paused, uncertain how to say it. “You know we were on our way to defeating one of the Syndic flotillas in Lakota when a much larger Syndic force arrived via the hypernet gate. This fleet was almost trapped and destroyed as a result.” Rione knew what he was talking about, but none of the other officers did, and they were all watching him, plainly trying to figure out the connection to the aliens. “Intelligence on Dauntless intercepted a number of signals from the Syndic ships that had arrived via the hypernet gate, messages that clearly revealed that the Syndics were shocked to be in Lakota. They’d entered their hypernet system with a destination of Andvari Star System.”

He let them absorb that for a moment. Cresida, perhaps the fleet’s best expert on the hypernet, responded first. “They made that big a mistake? No, it’s impossible to make that kind of mistake. There’s no way to set one destination on the hypernet and end up in another.”

Geary nodded. “So I was told. No way that we know of.”

Desjani got it first, her face reddening with rage. “They did it. Whatever they are. They changed the destination of those Syndic ships so we’d be confronted by an overwhelming force.”

“That’s the only conclusion that makes sense,” Geary agreed. “They intervened in an attempt to destroy this fleet.”

“Why?” Tulev, not surprisingly, had been the first to look past the outrage of the aliens’ actions and search for a reason.

“Damned if I know. They don’t want us to get home. Is it because they want the Alliance to lose? I don’t think so. If they wanted to help the Syndics defeat us, they could provide the Syndics with more of their technology, but as best we can tell, they secretly gave the hypernet technology to both the Alliance and Syndicate Worlds at about the same time several decades ago.”

“What are they?” Desjani demanded. “What do we know of them?”

This time Geary shrugged. “Shadows and scientific wild-ass guesses. We see signs of them, apparent proof they’re out there and intervening in this war, but nothing about them directly. If they did redirect that Syndic flotilla, it not only means they can mess with a hypernet in ways we don’t understand, it also means they can covertly monitor where this fleet is and where it’s going, and get that information somewhere at something close to real time over interstellar distances.” The others stared at him as the implications of that struck home, but none of them denied his logic.

“The Syndics certainly know more about the aliens,” Rione added to the group. “But that knowledge has apparently been kept very close, and even the existence of the aliens kept secret from most Syndic citizens. Only the Syndicate Worlds’ highest leaders may know everything there is to be known. We’ve found nothing in captured records.”

“Are they human?” Tulev wondered.

“I don’t think so,” Geary answered. “If they were human, why would the Syndics have kept them secret? And how could another human power strong enough to hold the Syndics on a border exist without us knowing something? They would have had to come from somewhere.”

“Not human.” Tulev shook his head. “How do they think? Not like us.”

“Surely we can still figure out their intent,” Desjani insisted.

Duellos was frowning in thought. “My grandmother taught me an ancient riddle when I was quite young. That riddle might help us understand what we’re dealing with.”

“Really? What is it?”

Duellos paused dramatically. “Feathers or lead?”

Geary waited, but nothing else came. “That’s it?”

“That’s it. Feathers or lead?”

“What kind of riddle just asks you to chose between two things?” Cresida asked, then shrugged. “I give. What’s the answer?”

“It depends.” Duellos smiled as everyone looked aggravated. “The one asking the riddle is a demon, you see. The demon chooses which answer is right. In order to guess the right answer, you have to know what the demon thinks it should be that particular time.”

“How are you supposed to know what a demon thinks?” As soon as Geary said the words, he got Duellos’s point. “Like the aliens.”

“Exactly. How do we answer a question posed by something that isn’t human, when we have no idea what the question means or what the ones asking it want the answer to be?”

“And what do they expect from us? Honor or lies?” Captain Cresida asked. Everyone turned to look at her. “Who have these aliens been in contact with? The Syndics.”

Rione nodded. “Whose leaders have broken every agreement made with us, even when abiding by those agreements would have been in the long-term interests of the Syndicate Worlds.”

“The Syndic leaders don’t think long-term,” Duellos pointed out. “Short-term gain is all that matters to them.”

Geary shook his head. “Would they have been stupid enough to use those kinds of tactics against an alien species that clearly has technological superiority over the human race?” He saw the answer on every other face in the room. “Yeah. Maybe they would have.” After all, those same leaders had repeatedly broken agreements with this fleet, even knowing that the fleet could easily retaliate by wiping out entire worlds.

“The superior technology would have been irresistible bait for them,” Rione observed bitterly. “They would have been willing to try to acquire it by any possible means, leaving the aliens to conclude that the human race could not be trusted. Anything the aliens have done could have been seen by them as defensive, a means to neutralize humanity.”

“But if the Syndics were dealing with aliens,” Cresida argued, “and unsuccessfully dealing with them apparently because they’ve never surfaced with any technology far in advance of the Alliance except the same hypernet we got, why would they turn around and attack us? We know from the disposition of Syndic hypernet gates on the far border that the Syndics fear the aliens. Why start a war with us?”

“Because they were surrounded?” Duellos offered. “The Alliance on one side and these aliens on the other side. That leaves the Syndicate Worlds pinned between two powers. They must have feared being crushed between us once we learned of the existence of the creatures.”

“Then why start a war with us?” Cresida demanded. “Why make their nightmare come true?”

Geary shook his head. “During peacetime, Alliance ships traveled through Syndicate Worlds’ space. Only occasional warships carrying out diplomatic missions, but more frequent freighters. Alliance citizens also traveled through the Syndicate Worlds on business or pleasure. Any of those might have found clues to the existence of the aliens or been contacted by them directly.”

“Well enough, sir, but starting a war to prevent occasional Alliance traffic through their territory seems like massive overkill. It’s not like the Syndics ever invited much Alliance shipping into their areas of control. They could have choked it off completely using any number of excuses, and what could the Alliance have done? Besides, how could they know the aliens wouldn’t attack them while they were involved in fighting the Alliance?”

Duellos shrugged. “Maybe the Syndic leaders thought they could defeat us quickly.”

“That’s irrational!” Cresida objected. “Even the Syndic leaders couldn’t have been so stupid as to believe they could do that!”

“They thought the Alliance would crack under the first blows,” Desjani cut in. “That we wouldn’t have the spirit to rebound from the initial losses and hit back.”

“We don’t know that,” Rione replied with a slightly but unmistakably dismissive tone. “That was the argument used to rally the Alliance after the first attacks. That was why the Alliance made the most of whatever heroic examples existed, as proof that any such Syndic belief was wrong.”

Which was where the legend of Black Jack Geary began. Fighting to the last against overwhelming odds. A heroic example to inspire everyone else. Geary tried not to notice everyone not looking at him.

Tulev shrugged. “It may have been a useful rallying argument for the Alliance, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true,” he suggested with a glance at Desjani, whose eyes had narrowed in response to Rione’s tone. “What other explanation exists?”

“Perhaps they reached some sort of agreement with the aliens,” Rione suggested. “Doubtless planning to go back on it as soon as they’d dealt with us.”

“What kind of agreement?” Geary wondered, his mind going back to a time that was the recent past for him but a century old for the others here. “A nonaggression pact might temporarily secure their border with the aliens, but the Syndics couldn’t have decisively beaten the Alliance. They didn’t have military forces large enough to overcome the sheer size of the Alliance, any more than the Alliance could muster enough force to defeat the expanse of the Syndicate Worlds. We knew that as well as they did. That’s why the surprise attacks, including the one in Grendel, came as such a shock.”

“Maybe there’s the answer,” Desjani declared, her expression shadowed with an emerging idea. “What everyone’s been saying made me think of something.” She tapped some controls and an area of space that Geary found heartbreakingly familiar was displayed above the table. “Alliance space along the frontier with the Syndicate Worlds,” Desjani explained to Rione as if she couldn’t be expected to recognize a display of the area, causing Rione’s expression to harden slightly this time. “I’ve spent some time recently studying the start of the war. This shows the initial Syndic attacks a century ago. Shukra, Thabas, Diomede, Baldur, Grendel. Why did they hit Diomede instead of Varandal? Why Shukra instead of Ulani?”

Geary frowned. He didn’t know this, hadn’t ever known it, because he had been lost in survival sleep since that first Syndic surprise attack at Grendel. In the months after his awakening, he’d avoided studying the early Syndic attacks closely since he still felt the pain of knowing his crew from those days had all died in either that battle or later battles or, if lucky, from old age, while Geary’s survival pod drifted among the other debris of battle at Grendel. “Good question. I just skimmed those events and assumed they must have hit the Alliance base at Varandal.”

“They didn’t,” Duellos confirmed, studying the display. “Varandal was a major base back then as well?”

Desjani nodded. “The primary command, repair, supply, and docking facility for the Alliance fleet in that entire sector of space.”

“That seems a far-more-critical target than some of those that were hit. Does anyone know why they didn’t strike Varandal? ”

Once again Desjani answered. “Our histories all say that it was assumed Varandal, Ulani, and other high-value star systems were intended for a follow-up wave of attacks that didn’t happen because of Syndic losses suffered in the first wave. Assumed,” Desjani emphasized. “It’s obvious they made that assumption because everyone on the Alliance side agreed the Syndics shouldn’t have had any expectation that their first wave of surprise attacks to start this war could have inflicted enough damage on the Alliance to be decisive. The Syndics didn’t have enough forces on hand, as Captain Geary says, to hit everything they needed to hit all at once.”

“What’s your point?” Rione demanded.

Desjani gave her a cold look in return, but her voice stayed professionally calm. “Perhaps the Syndics expected to have more forces than we knew of. Suppose the Syndics had reached an agreement and expected to have help? Suppose they expected an ally, a very powerful ally, to hit places like Varandal while they hit Diomede?”

This time the silence was longer. Rione’s face hardened again, but now her feelings weren’t directed at Desjani. “The aliens double-crossed the Syndics.”

“By promising to help attack the Alliance.”

“And then didn’t show up, leaving the Syndics to fight alone. They suckered the Syndic leaders, who thought themselves the masters of cunning behavior, into an unwinnable war with the Alliance. But the Syndic leaders couldn’t admit they’d been fooled on such a huge issue, and they’d enraged the Alliance, and so couldn’t get out of the war they’d started.”

Cresida was nodding now. “The aliens don’t want either side winning. That’s why they intervened at Lakota. Captain Geary was doing too well, inflicting enough losses to, perhaps, eventually decisively tip the balance against the Syndics, and getting closer and closer to getting the Syndic hypernet key back to Alliance space. The aliens want humanity at war, and they want us to remain totally absorbed in this war. But is that purely defensive? Or are they waiting to see how much we can weaken ourselves before they move in?”

“We think that they can wipe us out at any time using the hypernet gates,” Geary noted.

“But they haven’t yet,” Cresida argued. “If they’re watching us as the events here at Lakota seem to prove, they must know from the collapse of the Syndic hypernet gate at Sancere that we’re at least learning about the destructive potential of the gates. If they want to use the gates to wipe us out, why haven’t they triggered them already?”

“Feathers or lead?” Duellos asked, studying his fingernails.

Frustrating as it was, Geary had to admit Duellos had a point. “We can speculate endlessly and not reach conclusions because we don’t know anything about what we’re dealing with.”

“We know they’ve figured out how to trick us,” Desjani insisted. “Sir, look at the pattern. They intervene in hidden ways, and they know how to get us to do things that either hurt or have the potential to hurt ourselves.”

“Good point,” Duellos conceded. “Which means they very likely adopt such tactics among themselves. They seem to favor causing an enemy to make mistakes that result in self-inflicted injury.”

Rione nodded. “By figuring out what that enemy wants, then offering it to them. They must have formidable political skills.”

“And the Syndics tried to mess with them,” Geary noted angrily. “They poked a hornet’s nest with a stick, and all of humanity got stung.”

“Why haven’t the Syndics come clean?” Cresida wondered. “They don’t have any hope of winning this war and haven’t for a long time. Why not say they were tricked by the aliens, claim the aliens told them we were going to attack, whatever. Get us on their side against whatever these things are.”

Rione shook her head. “The Syndicate Worlds’ leaders can’t afford to admit they made that kind of mistake. Heads would roll, possibly in a very literal way. Even though the predecessors of the current Syndic leaders actually made the errors, the current leaders derive their legitimacy by claiming to be the chosen successors of past leaders. And all Syndic leaders are supposedly chosen for their competence and abilities. Admit to horrible errors by one generation of leaders and it calls into question the legitimacy of their chosen successors and the entire system. It is much easier and safer for them to continue on a ruinous course of action than it would be to admit to serious errors and try to change the situation.”

“They’re that stupid?” Cresida asked.

No. It’s not stupid. If they admit to mistakes made by leaders of the Syndicate Worlds, mistakes so serious they have trapped the Syndicate Worlds in an apparently endless war, then it is certain they will lose power, and if they lose power, they will at worst die either quickly or slowly, and at best lose every bit of their status and wealth. But as long as they continue the current policies, they can hope something will change. It’s not about what’s best for the Syndicate Worlds or the Alliance or humanity as a whole. It’s about what’s best for them as individuals. They’ll fight to the last warship and ground soldier, because that’s someone else paying the price for their mistakes and putting off the day when they’ll personally be called to account.”

Geary noticed the other officers were trying not to stare at Rione. He knew what was bothering them. Not just the rationale the Syndic leaders were probably using, but also that Rione understood it and could explain it, which meant she could think the same way.

Clearly seeing the same thing, Rione glared around at the others. “I forgot. You’re all so noble and honorable. No senior military officer would ever allow people to die rather than admit a mistake, or cling to a foolish course of action in order to maintain their position.”

This time a lot of faces reddened. Geary spoke before anyone else could. “Point taken. But no one here engages in that kind of thing. And, yes, I include Co-President Rione in that. She came along on this mission, risking her own life along with the sailors of this fleet. Now, let’s redirect our anger at our enemies, not each other.”

“Which enemies?” Duellos wondered. “We’ve spent all of our lives knowing that ‘enemy’ meant the Syndics. They were the ones attacking us, bombarding our worlds, killing our friends and family members. And all that time we had another enemy, one none of us knew about.”

“Is that true, though? Do our leaders know about them?” Desjani asked.

Every eye turned again to Rione, who flushed slightly but gazed back defiantly. “I don’t. As far as I know, no senator knows of the aliens.”

“What about the Governing Council?” Duellos questioned.

“I don’t know.” Rione looked at the others and obviously saw doubt there. “I don’t have any reason to lie,” she snapped. “I know there are extremely sensitive matters of which only members of the Governing Council are apprised. Supposedly some of those matters are passed verbally to new members and never written down, but I don’t know that’s true. Only the members of the Governing Council know, and they don’t discuss their secrets.”

Geary nodded. “I can easily believe that. What would be your guess, though, Madam Senator?” He used the title deliberately, wanting to emphasize for the others the political rank that Rione held. “If you had to make a guess, is there anything you know or have heard about the Governing Council that would lead you to think they might know?”

She frowned, bending her head in thought. “Maybe. It would depend upon how you interpreted things.”


Rione’s frown deepened. “Questions that you’re told to stop asking for Alliance security reasons, private statements regarding plans or budgets, that sort of thing. But there are plenty of other explanations for any of that. Listen, I’m as suspicious as any politician. I parse everything I hear for possible interpretations. If the Governing Council has any clue as to the existence of these aliens, they’ve done a very good job of keeping it quiet. I certainly never suspected it until Captain Geary showed me what he’d figured out.”

“But then we’d all stopped asking that question,” Cresida observed. “Hadn’t we? No nonhuman intelligent species had ever been discovered or contacted us, that we knew of, and the war had us all focused on other matters. Captain Geary had a fresh perspective.”

“More like a fresh-frozen perspective,” Geary replied, and everyone smiled at the reference to his long period in survival sleep. He hadn’t thought that he’d ever be able to joke about that. “Here’s the question: Do we keep them secret? Or do we start telling lots of other people?”

This time the silence stretched, then Rione spoke in a world-weary voice. “We fear that humanity will use the power in the hypernet gates to wipe itself out because of the hatreds generated by this war. If humanity learned that the war had been caused by a trick from another intelligent species, and that the same species had fooled us into planting the means for humanity’s extinction throughout the star systems we control, what would the mass of people do? What would they demand?”

“Revenge,” Tulev answered.

“Yes. War on an even greater scale, against an enemy of unknown strength, unknown size, and with unquestionably superior technology.”

Cresida clenched her fists. “I don’t particularly care how many of those things died. They’ve earned it. But the thought of how many more humans would perish…”

“I think my question has been answered,” Geary stated heavily. “We have to keep the secret, too, yet also figure out how to counter these aliens without starting an even bigger war.”

Duellos pursed his lips as he frowned in thought, the fingers of one hand drumming silently on the table near him. “One enemy at a time. That’s what I’d recommend. We have to deal with the Syndics before we can have a hope of dealing with the aliens.”

“But how can we beat the Syndics if the aliens are actively helping them?” Cresida demanded.

Duellos’s frown deepened. “I’ll be damned if I know the answer to that.”

For some reason everyone else turned to look at Geary.

He stared back at them. “What? Do you think I know how to do that?”

To his surprise, Cresida answered. “Sir, you have shown an ability to see things the rest of us take for granted or just haven’t thought about. Perhaps it’s because you’ve got an outside viewpoint in many ways, or perhaps you’re, um, being inspired to see things the rest of us cannot.”

Being inspired? What could that mean? Geary looked around at Cresida and the others, and saw the meaning, from Cresida’s slightly embarrassed expression to Desjani’s calm belief to Rione’s measuring glance. “You believe the living stars are telling me things? I’d think I’d know if that was happening.”

Duellos frowned slightly again. “No, you wouldn’t,” he corrected. “That’s not how they work. Or not how they’re supposed to work.”

“No one knows how they work! Why after all we’ve been through would you think I’m getting divine inspiration?”

Desjani answered. “You keep telling us in private deliberations that you’re just a normal man, not exceptional. But you keep doing exceptional things. Either you are an extraordinary man, or you’re receiving extraordinary assistance, and I’m not vain enough to believe any aid I provide is that special.”

That was a neat little logic trap. “Captain Desjani, all of you, any extraordinary assistance I’m getting is from you.” Every face somehow conveyed disagreement. “You can’t risk the fate of this fleet, of the Alliance, on some vague belief that I’ll receive divine inspiration whenever I need it.”

“We’re not,” Tulev stated. “We’re basing it on what you’ve done so far. Just keep doing it.” A rare smile showed on his face as Tulev signaled that he understood the half-joking/ half-unreasonable nature of his statement.

Just keep doing it. Save the fleet. Win the war. Confront and deal with a nonhuman foe of unknown characteristics and power. Geary couldn’t help laughing. “I’ll try. But no inspiration is coming to me right now. I need all of you to keep doing what you’ve been doing, providing invaluable support, advice, and assistance.”

Cresida shook her head. “I wish I could think of some advice for dealing with the aliens. At least thinking about that will give us something to do while the fleet is in jump space en route to Branwyn.”

Three days later, Geary gave the order to jump, and the Alliance fleet left Lakota Star System for the second and, hopefully, last time.

AFTER the many stresses of recent weeks and the struggles within Lakota Star System, the days spent in jump space on the way to Branwyn proved a welcome though brief period of recovery. Everyone kept working hard to repair battle damage, but they were able to relax a bit emotionally and mentally. Despite the eeriness of jump space, Geary found himself regretting the return to normal space when they reached their destination.

The star-system-status display, loaded with information from captured Syndic star-system directories, updated itself with actual observations as the Alliance fleet’s sensors evaluated the human presence at Branwyn. Surprisingly, the star had more Syndic presence than expected. Most star systems bypassed by the hypernet had declined either slowly or quickly as the space traffic that had once been required to pass through them using the jump drives had instead used the hypernet gates to go directly between any two points on the hypernet.

But here in Branwyn the mining facilities that made up most of the human presence were significantly larger than in the decades-old Syndicate Worlds’ star-system guides the Alliance fleet had captured at Sancere. “Why?” Geary wondered out loud.

Desjani shook her head, apparently baffled as well. “There’s no Syndic military presence here. No picket ships, no force guarding against us. I’ve never seen an occupied Syndic system without at least an internal-security-forces facility.”

Information kept updating on the display, revealing a few cargo ships running to and from one of the other jump points in Branwyn Star System. “Where does the jump point lead?”

He saw the answer even as a watch-stander called it out. “Sortes Star System, sir.”

A robust Syndic presence in a hypernet-bypassed star system, with apparently regular traffic to another nearby star system with a hypernet gate. But there didn’t appear to be anything being mined here that wouldn’t also be present at Sortes. “What the hell?” Geary muttered.

Victoria Rione laughed, drawing his attention. “None of you understand this? Don’t you realize what you’re seeing? This is all unauthorized, a pirate facility if you will, set up by Syndic corporations seeking to bypass central controls and taxation. Everything they pull out of here hasn’t been regulated or taxed, which more than makes up for the extra costs of smuggling the material into hypernet-linked star systems and covering up its origin.”

“How would you know that?” Geary asked.

“Because similar operations spring up in Alliance space from time to time. It’s illicit, but it’s profitable. One of the hobbies of the Alliance Senate is passing laws trying to ensure that no one can get away with it, but people are always looking for and finding loopholes.”

An illicit operation. Geary wondered whether the people of Branwyn would provide aid to the stricken Lakota Star System or simply hunker down to avoid being caught. “Let’s send them the recording of what happened at Lakota and the plea from the habitable planet there. What will happen if the Syndic authorities or their military find out about this place?”

Rione shrugged. “Some of them surely already know. I imagine bribes to the right people keep that knowledge secure. Having us pass through here might draw too much attention to cover up, though.”

He checked the maneuvering display. “It’ll only take four days for us to reach the jump point for Wendig. The auxiliaries are already drawing down the raw materials we looted at Lakota. Do you think we can trust the Syndics here to provide unsabotaged raw materials if we demand them?”

“Trust a pirate operation? How much profit could you offer them?”

“None,” Geary replied.

“Then that’s how much trust you could have in them.”

WITH the Syndic presence in Branwyn showing every sign of hasty emergency evacuation and no threats toward the Alliance fleet, Geary found himself restless. Unable to sit still and think, he started taking more long walks through the passageways of Dauntless. Battle cruisers were large ships, but not so large that such walks didn’t often encounter Captain Desjani doing her own thinking and maintaining a constant presence among her crew. Ironically, being openly seen with Desjani was a far better defense against rumors of unprofessional conduct than avoiding her would be, because if they weren’t seen walking and talking together, then gossip would assume they were together in places where they couldn’t be seen doing things they didn’t want seen.

Most of the conversation kept to professional topics. The war, ship-handling, the merits of different classes of ships, tactics, logistics, personnel matters, and where the fleet should go next. Not the sort of thing anyone overhearing could possibly construe as social conversations, though Desjani did have a passion for those topics. She truly did love being a fleet officer.

But as time went by Desjani spoke more of her home planet Kosatka and Alliance space in general, of her family, and gradually drew Geary out on the same topics. He found himself bringing up memories that had been too painful to consider, thoughts of people and places now vanished, surprised that he could speak of them with her and feel a sense not only of melancholy but also of release.

“You told me a while ago that you knew someone on Dreadnaught,” Desjani brought up once, as they walked through a long passageway running toward the propulsion spaces. It was well into the ship’s night, and only an occasional sailor or officer went past on an errand through the darkened passage.

That brought up a whirl of more recent painful memories, centered on the Syndic home system. “Yeah,” Geary agreed softly. “My grandniece. Captain Michael Geary’s sister. He gave me a message for her.”

Desjani was looking at her data pad. “Commander Jane Geary? She’s not just on Dreadnaught. She’s the commanding officer.” Then Desjani frowned. “A battleship commanded by a Geary. There’s something odd there, but I never heard any negative stories about her.”

Geary tried not to snort. The modern fleet assigned its best officers to battle cruisers, where they could charge into battle first, and die first. “Maybe she’s being judged by an impossible standard.”

“That of her legendary great-uncle?” Desjani asked, then smiled. “It’s possible.” The smile went away. “And when we get back, you’ll have to tell her that her brother is probably dead. I’m sorry.”

“It won’t be easy.”

“But you have a message for her from him?”

“Yeah. Just about the last thing he said before Repulse was destroyed.” He thought about it, then decided if there was anyone who would comprehend that message who wasn’t a Geary, it might be Desjani. “He told me to tell her that he didn’t hate me anymore.”

She looked briefly shocked, then the expression faded into thoughtfulness. “The impossible standard. Michael Geary hated you for what he’d been forced to live with?”

“That’s what he said.” In the very brief time that Geary had been granted to speak with his grandnephew, there hadn’t been much opportunity to say more.

“But he changed his mind.” Desjani gave Geary a long look. “Because he was using Repulse to hold off the enemy. A last-ditch rearguard action to allow the rest of the fleet to escape, the same sort of action that you became legendary for. He understood then, didn’t he?”

“Yes.” He felt a great sense of relief at being able to share the story. Tanya Desjani got it. Of course she did. “He realized I hadn’t done it because I thought I was a hero or because I wanted glory. I did it because so many others were counting on me. That’s all.”

“And he had to do the same.” She nodded. “It does take a hero, sir.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Geary shrugged, feeling old pain rising to the surface as he thought of the death of his old ship a century ago and more recent sorrow from ships in this fleet that had been lost fighting the same sort of hopeless rearguard actions. “It’s pure chance who ends up in a situation like that.”

“Maybe.” Desjani gave Geary a serious look. “But what someone does when faced with that situation isn’t pure chance, sir. They make choices, as we all do. Those choices define us. I know you don’t like me to say it, but you are a hero, sir. If you were a fraud, people would have seen that by now.”

“I’m human, Tanya.”

“Of course you are. That what makes it heroic. Humans fear death and pain, and when we reach beyond that fear to protect others, we have done something to be proud of.”

Startled, Geary walked silently for a moment before replying. “I’d never thought of it that way. You’re pretty good with words, you know. No wonder your uncle wanted you to be part of his literary agency.”

She looked down at the deck and smiled in a slightly wistful way. “My fate lay among the stars, Captain Geary. I think I’ve always felt that way.”

“Any idea why?”

“No. They just always called to me. Strange that I should gaze up at the vast emptiness of space since I was little and believe that the emptiness would hold what really mattered to me, but that’s how it always felt.”

Dauntless?” Geary teased. “I can tell you love being on the bridge of a battle cruiser.”

Desjani laughed, something so rare that Geary wasn’t certain if he’d heard it before. “I hope not! I adore Dauntless, but battle cruisers are very demanding queens to their captains. It’s an extremely one-sided relationship, as you know. I was hoping for something a little more balanced.” She was smiling, still, and despite himself, he wondered what such a relationship with Desjani would be like. But he couldn’t, of course, and she couldn’t, of course, so they walked on down the passageway, the conversation safely turning to the latest modifications in hell-lance targeting systems.

When he reached his stateroom he was surprised to find Rione there despite the late hour, standing before the star display as if she’d been studying it for a long time. “Is something wrong?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Rione said. “I’m just your former lover. You’ve been talking to her.”

Geary frowned at Rione. “Captain Desjani, you mean. She’s my flagship captain-”

“And you weren’t just talking about your beloved fleet,” Rione finished, but she didn’t sound angry this time, just defeated.

“There won’t be anything between us, Victoria. You know why there can’t be anything between Tanya Desjani and me.”

Rione kept her face averted for a while, then looked back at Geary, her expression unreadable. “There’s already something between you. Nothing physical. No. No improper actions of any kind. I freely admit that. Neither of you would do that. But there’s an emotional bond, feelings that go far beyond professional, and you know that’s true, John Geary.” She exhaled slowly, looking away again. “I won’t be any man’s second choice.”

He wondered what to say. “I didn’t think-”

“No. You didn’t. Not that I ever encouraged you to think I’d be interested in anything more than the physical relationship we’ve sometimes enjoyed. But a strong woman needs a strong man, and I’ve found myself wanting more from you than sex. But I can’t have that. Admit it. You don’t love me. You lust for my body, but you do not and cannot love me.”

“I can’t honestly say I love you,” Geary admitted. “But I wouldn’t lust after you if I didn’t admire who you were.”

Rione directed a pained smile to a corner of the stateroom. “That’s just what every woman wants. To be lusted after and admired.”

“I’m sorry. You always said we were promising each other nothing.”

“True. I broke the bargain. In part. Don’t flatter yourself that I’m madly in love with you. But I will not be your second choice,” she repeated. “I have my pride.” Walking to the hatch, Rione paused before opening it and looked back at him. “Once I leave here, change your security settings so that I no longer have free access.”

Geary nodded. “If that’s what you want.”

“What I want scarcely matters anymore. But you must know that I mean what I say. I will not be back here except as an adviser.”

“Thank you. Your advice has been more valuable than I think you ever realize.”

She twisted her mouth, then shook her head. “The Alliance needs this fleet, and it needs you. I will remain your ally and confidant as long as you remain true to your beliefs and the Alliance. But I will not come to your bed again, and I ask you not to come to mine, because I know that while you were making love to my body you’d be thinking of her, and that I will not endure.”

He sat for a long time after the hatch closed, realizing the truth of Victoria Rione’s words. The one woman he could have in this fleet wasn’t the woman he wanted, and Rione had every right to refuse to accept any lesser place with him.

Getting up, he went to the hatch controls and reset them to eliminate Rione’s free access to his stateroom. Somehow the finality of that gesture served to make it certain that this time Rione would not be returning except for talks about the fleet’s situation. He couldn’t help feeling both guilty and relieved.

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