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“TEN Syndic battleships, twelve battle cruisers, seventeen heavy cruisers, twenty-five light cruisers, forty-two Hunter-Killers, ” the operations watch-stander announced.

“Roughly half our strength,” Desjani observed, “though we’ve got a much bigger advantage in lighter units. Will they avoid action or fight?”

“They’ve got to have orders to stop us or delay us,” Geary pointed out. “To do either of those things, they have to fight.”

“They might be too frightened to fight after what this fleet did at Lakota.” Then Desjani paused as something occurred to her. “They may not know what happened at Lakota. They may assume the pursuit force we destroyed at Lakota is still after us and may appear at any moment.”

“You’re probably right, since they came from either Anahalt or Dilawa.” Geary watched as the eight-light-hours-distant images of the Syndic formation could be seen coming around onto a new vector. The Syndics had already had eight hours to decide what to do and get started doing it. “It’s a standard Syndic box formation so far.”

“Maybe this CEO will be as stupid as the one at Kaliban,” Desjani suggested. That enemy commander had simply charged head-on at the superior numbers of the Alliance fleet, allowing Geary to annihilate the enemy forces by bringing all of his firepower to bear.

“That’d be nice,” Geary agreed, “but we can’t count on it. I’ve got a suspicion that we’re killing stupid CEOs faster than the Syndics are promoting them.”

“I’ve found it hard to overestimate the ability of any system to promote stupid people.”

With the promise of combat looming, Desjani was in a good enough mood to crack jokes, although Geary had to admit she had a point. “Let’s assume he or she isn’t stupid. Do you think they’ll try hitting our flanks with fast runs, or if I have the formation divided, will they try to hit one of the subformations head-on?”

Desjani considered that. “They’ve been taught to fight like we used to fight, with head-on charges. Even if they try something fancy, it’s more likely to be a charge against one portion of our formation rather than a firing pass against a flank or corner like you taught us. That’s what I’d expect.”

Ideally, he’d just concentrate his own fleet into one big formation for the Syndic to charge toward. But such a big formation wouldn’t allow all of his ships to engage the smaller enemy formation, negating a lot of his superiority. On the other hand, if the Syndic was going to aim for a subformation rather than going straight for the main body of the fleet, tactics like those at Kaliban wouldn’t work either. He’d have to use something different.

Rione reached the bridge then, pausing to look at the display before her seat before addressing Geary. “What do you plan on doing?”

Geary indicated his own display, where the sweeping arc of the Syndic formation’s projected course and speed was coming around and steadying on a vector that intercepted the arc of the Alliance fleet’s own path, the two curved lines bending across light-hours of distance to join like twin sabers clashing. “I plan on meeting the enemy, Madam Co-President, in a little less than a day and a half.”

Rione looked from her display with its readout of the enemy’s numbers, then to Geary, and shook her head. “It’s like fighting a hydra. No matter how many Syndic warships we destroy, there are always more.”

“They keep building them, and unlike us, they can get reinforcements,” Geary pointed out.

“I’d recommend trying to capture this CEO alive, Captain Geary. He or she may be able to answer some questions for us.”

“I’ll do my best, Madam Co-President.”

“CAPTAIN, we’re receiving a very tightly focused transmission from the direction of the primary inhabited world. It’s addressed to Captain Geary.”

Desjani gave him a wary look. They were still almost eight hours from contact with the Syndic flotilla, not having assumed their combat formation yet. “I’ll take it,” Geary advised. “Let Captain Desjani see it, too.”

The window that popped up before him showed an older woman seated at a desk, wearing a midrank Syndic CEO uniform. “I suppose you’re wondering why the senior Syndicate Worlds’ officer in this star system is communicating with you, Captain Geary, and doing it in a manner that minimizes any chance anyone else will discover that she did so.”

She gestured to a picture on the desk, of a young man Geary vaguely recognized. “I had a brother, long dead in an accident, I thought. Now I have a brother, and the knowledge that a corporation tied to a very senior Syndicate Worlds’ leader wrote off actually removing him and hundreds of his coworkers from Wendig because it shaved a small amount off the expenses column in that corporation’s annual report. I also have a sister-in-law and some nieces and a nephew I’d never known of, all of whom owe their lives to you.”

The face in the picture suddenly clicked in Geary’s mind. It was the mayor of Alpha, though decades younger.

The Syndic planetary CEO shook her head. “Not to mention all of the lives that would have been lost in this star system if you had chosen to bombard this planet. But I’ve heard from people in places like Corvus and Sutrah and even Sancere, so I know you’ve been behaving the same way everywhere, striking only at military targets or industrial sites in retaliation for our own attacks on you. I don’t know how many millions or billions of Syndicate Worlds’ citizens you might have easily killed, but I do know you didn’t do it.”

Now the Syndic planetary CEO smiled grimly. “Now I find myself thanking the Alliance fleet for all of those lives even though my orders are to take any actions that might cost you any ships or delay you in any way, regardless of the potential loss to the inhabitants of this star system. I’m well aware of the situation you find yourself in. We’ve been told a half dozen times that your fleet was trapped and soon to be destroyed. How you’ve made it this far the living stars alone know. That you came to be in command, Captain Geary, and the identification the Syndicate Worlds have been able to do on you seems positive, leads me to wonder if the living stars have actually intervened in this war. That you took a force built for war and used it to save the lives of your enemies causes me to be grateful that they have.

“I owe you, Captain Geary, and I believe in repaying debts. Your fleet is headed for an engagement with a substantial Syndicate Worlds’ force, but one you outnumber significantly. Even though our leaders are trying to keep everything about you and your fleet highly classified, there are plenty of credible unofficial reports circulating. Based on those, I don’t expect the Syndic force to prevail here, but based on your actions to date, that expectation does not fill me with fear. Your fleet will be less a threat to the people here than one answering to the Syndicate Worlds’ Executive Council.”

The Syndic CEO shook her head again. “I won’t forget what you did, Captain Geary. A lot of us have come to the understanding that this war stopped making sense the day it began. We’re tired of trying to hold things together in our star systems while our leaders squander the wealth of the Syndicate Worlds in a war that can’t be won. When you get home, tell your leaders that there are people here who are weary of fighting and want to talk.”

The Syndic CEO paused. “When our facilities at Dilawa were mothballed about twenty years ago, it was judged uneconomical to remove the stockpiled materials at the mining facilities there. A lot of things were left in place. Just in case you have need of supplies after you leave here.”

The window blanked, and Geary leaned back, thinking.

“Can we trust her?” Desjani wondered.

“I don’t know. Where’s Co-President Rione?”

“In her stateroom, I think.”

“Shoot her a copy of that and ask for her assessment.” Desjani’s mouth twitched, and she hesitated just enough for Geary to see. “Never mind. I’ll do it.”

Five minutes later Rione was on the bridge. “I think she’s being honest.”

“She wants to talk peace, and expects us to defeat this Syndic flotilla, and told us where we can find raw materials to resupply the auxiliaries,” Geary pointed out. “If the Syndic authorities find out any of that, they’ll have her head off in a heartbeat.”

Rione nodded to Geary, her face thoughtful. “This implies a higher degree of rot within the Syndic hierarchy than we expected. A star-system CEO telling us directly that she no longer supports the war.”

“She’s also sympathizing with us against her own forces,” Desjani pointed out to Geary, seeming to be torn between gratitude and revulsion.

Instead of replying to her, Rione spoke to Geary. “The Syndic fleet has been a critical part of the mechanism by which the leaders of the Syndicate Worlds have maintained control over their territory. Anyone trying to display any independence would find warships arriving to enforce the will of their Executive Council. The more damage you do to that fleet, the greater the opportunity for local leaders such as this one to act on their own.”

“That fleet is nonetheless made up of their own people,” Desjani told Geary. “The fact that she’s apparently willing to cheer us on against them should play a role in our assessment of her.”

Rione shook her head as she addressed Geary again. “A hypernet-bypassed star system probably has proportionally fewer citizens in the fleet and feels far less a part of the Syndicate Worlds as time has gone by.”

Geary looked back at Desjani, only then realizing that both women were talking just to him and ignoring each other, as if they were in separate rooms and could only communicate directly with him.

Desjani shrugged slightly. “The Syndic CEO we saw is a politician, and I suppose a politician might feel less compunction about the sacrifices of military personnel.”

That made Rione’s jaw visibly tighten, but she still didn’t look at Desjani. “You have my assessment, Captain Geary. Now if you will excuse me, I have other matters to attend to.” She swung around and left the bridge.

Geary pressed the fingertips of one hand against his forehead for a moment in an attempt to push away an impending headache. “Captain Desjani,” he murmured so only she could hear, “I would appreciate it if you refrained from engaging in open combat with Co-President Rione.”

“Open combat?” Desjani replied in similar low tones. “I don’t understand, sir.”

He gave her a sharp look, but Desjani was eyeing him with what was surely pretended innocent puzzlement. “I really don’t want to go into details.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to, sir.”

Desjani might consider him guided by the living stars when it came to command of the fleet, but when it came to dealing with Rione, she obviously had a different opinion. “Just try to act like she’s in the same room with you.”

“She’s not, sir. She left the bridge.”

“Are you mocking me, Captain Desjani?”

“No, sir. I would never do that, sir.” Perfectly serious, as far as he could tell.

It was clearly time to withdraw from the engagement. He couldn’t go into more detail or get angry without drawing attention from the watch-standers on the bridge, and he didn’t need that. “Thank you, Captain Desjani. I’m very happy to hear that. I have enough other things to worry about.”

Desjani at least looked a little regretful as Geary left, trying to catch up with Rione. He suspected she’d had some other important insights to share, and he wanted to ask Rione something.

She wasn’t moving fast, so he caught up with her halfway down the passageway. “Tell me the truth,” Geary requested. “Is the Alliance that badly off as well? Is the Alliance ready to crack?”

“Why do you ask?” Rione’s tone was as unemotional as ever.

“Because you didn’t seem happy at the evidence of how bad things are for the Syndics. You’ve told me the Alliance military is unhappy with the Alliance government, you’ve told me that everyone is tired of war, but is it as bad as here in Syndic space? Is the Alliance threatening to fall apart?”

Rione stopped walking, her gaze directed at the deck, then slowly nodded without looking at him. “A century of war, John Geary. We can’t be beaten, neither can they, but both sides can push until they fracture.”

“That’s why you came along on this expedition? Not just because you were afraid that Bloch might try to become a dictator, but because you were sure that he’d succeed, that the war-weary citizens of the Alliance would follow him because they’d lost belief in the Alliance.”

“Bloch would not have succeeded,” Rione stated calmly. “He would have died.”

“You would have killed him.” She nodded. “Bloch must have known what you intended. He must have had precautions in place against you.”

“He did.” A very small smile flicked on and off Rione’s face. “They wouldn’t have been enough.”

Geary stared at her. “And what would have happened to you?”

“I’m not certain. It wouldn’t have mattered. What counted was stopping a dictator in his tracks.”

He couldn’t spot any trace of mockery or dishonesty in her. Rione meant it. “You were willing to die in order to make sure he was dead. Victoria, sometimes you scare the hell out of me.”

“Sometimes I scare the hell out of me.” She still seemed absolutely serious. “I told you, John Geary. I believed the man I loved had died in this war. I’ve had nothing else to live for since then but my devotion to the Alliance. If the Alliance itself was about to crumble, then I’d have nothing left at all. My husband died for the Alliance, and if necessary, I could as well.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this right from the start?”

Rione watched him for a moment before answering. “Because if you were someone in the mold of Admiral Bloch, you didn’t need encouraging. But if you were truly like Black Jack, you wouldn’t believe me, because the idea of the Alliance falling apart would have been too hard for you to accept. You needed to see enough for yourself to understand how bad things are. And I did tell you things, though you may not always have recognized it.” Rione shook her head. “I sounded you out, I watched you, I did what I had to do in order to influence your attitudes toward the way things are now.”

“What you had to do?” The phrase sounded cold even for Rione. “You told me once that you didn’t sleep with me just to influence me.”

Her eyes stayed on his. “That wasn’t the only reason, no. But it was part of it. Satisfied? You got my body, I got yours, and in the dark watches of the night I whispered to you about the need to protect the Alliance from those who would destroy it in the name of saving it. Oh, I enjoyed the sex. I admit that freely. But the day came when I knew that I no longer need fear you, and when I knew that my feelings were beginning to betray the husband I still love and who may still live. I didn’t give you to her because I’m noble, John Geary. I did it for myself, and because I’d done what I needed to do.”

He didn’t believe all of that. Rione’s posture and expression hadn’t changed, but he remembered the drunken words she’d once spoken, and he noticed that even while dispassionately justifying all she had done, Rione still didn’t say Tanya Desjani’s name. “You haven’t given me to anybody, let alone Captain Desjani.”

“You may have to lie to yourself, John Geary, but give me some credit.”

“Why are you staying on Dauntless, then? There are plenty of surviving ships from the Callas Republic to which you could transfer.”

“Because you’ll need me close when we get home. Not as a threat, as an ally. I know how the political leaders of the Alliance will react to you. Black Jack has returned, the savior of the fleet and the Alliance. You won’t take what some of them will offer in exchange for more power for themselves. You won’t do what others of them will fear, taking all power for yourself. No, John Geary,” Rione insisted, “you will stand atop the bulwarks of the Alliance and defend it against all enemies, both those inside and those outside, because that’s who you are, someone out of a simpler past. And I will help you against those inside who seek to use you or act against you out of fear.”

“Against me? Do you think I’ll be in danger from the political leadership of the Alliance?”

“If I had been on the Governing Council when you returned, I would have argued for your immediate arrest and isolation under the public deception of your being on some secret mission. Because I would have thought you were someone in the mold of Admiral Bloch or Captain Falco. I’ve learned different, and I will tell the other senators what I know. Believe me, you will need me,” Rione declared. “Even those politicians who dislike me, and there are plenty of those, know that I will not betray the Alliance. My words will matter to all of them.”

Geary looked away, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand and trying to think. No matter how complex getting this fleet home in one piece had always been, life once the fleet got home had seemed so simple. Resign his commission, go somewhere he wouldn’t be recognized, try to hide from the legend of Black Jack and the unrealistic, devout expectations of those who believed he had been sent by the living stars themselves to this fleet to save it and the Alliance. He’d kept focused on that to keep everything from overwhelming him, even as the idea of walking away from this fleet and its people felt less and less right. Now he had to admit that at the very least he’d have more problems to deal with before he could leave these responsibilities behind. “Thank you, Victoria. I’m sure your help will be critical.”

She shook her head. “Don’t thank me. I’m not doing it for you.”

“Thanks, anyway. Do you want to discuss the upcoming battle?”

“You’ll be fine. You always are.”

His temper threatened to explode. “Dammit, the last thing I or anyone else in this fleet needs is for me to become overconfident! I’m going to try to minimize our losses, but this battle will not be simple or easy or painless!”

Rione smiled in an infuriating manner. “See? You already know that. You don’t need me to tell you. Anything else?”

“Yes,” Geary stated between gritted teeth. “How about whether we should go to Anahalt or Dilawa afterward?”

Rione spread her hands in a dismissive gesture. “Follow your instincts, Captain Geary. They’re much better than mine, at least while we’re still in Syndic space.”

“I’d still like your opinion on whether or not we can trust that Syndic CEO.”

“Of course you can’t. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t being truthful this time. See if what she said about Dilawa matches the Syndic star-system records we’ve captured.” Rione turned to go, then spoke over her shoulder. “That’s my political advice. If you want military advice, go ask your captain for her opinion. It’ll give you two another professional opportunity to huddle close together.”

He watched Rione walk away, without saying anything else that might have just invited another parting shot.

FOUR hours until contact with the Syndics. The Alliance fleet and the Syndic flotilla were less than fifty light-minutes apart, each force moving at point one light speed, their combined rate of closure at the point two light speed maximum for effective targeting. He could now see what the Syndic ships had been doing just less than an hour earlier, just as they could see the status of the Alliance fleet that long ago. It was still too early to set his combat formation, too early to let the Syndic commander know how Geary planned to meet the enemy.

“Captain Geary? There’s something we need to show you.”

He acknowledged the message from Captain Desjani and headed for the compartment she’d called from, trying not to look apprehensive as he passed members of Dauntless’s crew. Despite the need to concentrate on the upcoming battle, Geary had been constantly distracted by worries about what his internal enemies might do. It sounded like they must have tried striking again.

The compartment proved to be one of the primary-systems control stations, apparently confirming his fears. As the hatch sealed behind him, Geary saw Desjani, the lieutenant commander who was Dauntless’s systems-security officer, and the virtual presence of Captain Cresida. “What is it this time?”

Desjani and the lieutenant commander both looked at Cresida, who gestured toward some of the system modules behind her. “I’d been thinking, sir,” Cresida began. “Trying to figure out how the aliens could be tracking us. The business with the worms got me wondering about our systems, about whether anything else could be hidden in them.”

Geary frowned. “The aliens? This isn’t about a new worm generated from somewhere within the fleet?”

“No, sir. We found something that couldn’t have come from internal sources. We had to get Captain Desjani’s systems-security officer involved.”

“It couldn’t have come from the inside?” Geary gave Desjani and her systems-security officer a puzzled look. “But you found something else?”

Cresida nodded. “Yes, sir. What I was wondering was, if something else was there, something that let the aliens track our movements, how could it still be hidden? It would have to be something unlike anything we’ve used or tried to use if our security scans missed it. So I’ve been looking at different things, just off-the-wall stuff, seeing if anything unusual or unexpected showed up anywhere inside our systems.”

Desjani’s systems-security officer tapped a control, and a virtual display popped up beside him, showing a weird image of what looked vaguely like overlapping waves with fluctuating boundaries. “This shows commands being sent through the navigational system, sir,” he explained. “Not the code, but the actual electron signal propagation. It’s a representation, of course, rendered in terms understandable to us. What Captain Cresida found was that the commands had something else piggybacking on them.” He indicated the fluctuating tops and sides.

Cresida pointed to them as well. “I don’t know how they do it, but somehow they’re encoding a worm using self-sustaining probability modulation on a quantum scale. Every particle making up this signal has quantum characteristics, of course. Well, the aliens have imprinted some kind of program on those characteristics. I know it’s not natural because there should be probabilistic variation in how these actions are occurring on the quantum boundaries of the particles making up the signal. There isn’t. It’s following patterns. We can’t tell what those patterns do, or how they do it, but it’s definitely something that shouldn’t be there.”

Desjani nodded toward the display. “We think we’ve found our alien spy, Captain Geary.”

“I’ll be damned. This is in the navigational systems?”

“And the communications systems. We’re still screening the other systems but haven’t found anything like it, yet.”

Geary stared at the display, amazed. “It’s set up to know where we’re going and tell someone else. Can this thing send messages at faster-than-light speeds?”

Cresida made a frustrated gesture. “I don’t know! I don’t know how it works at all, let alone what it can do. I just know it’s not supposed to be there.”

The lieutenant commander spoke up. “Naturally, none of our security programs or firewalls could spot this. It’s, uh, alien to them, if you’ll pardon the term.”

“There’s nothing we can do about it?” Geary demanded. “We just have to leave this thing infesting our systems?”

That drew a fierce smile from Cresida. “No, sir. I may not know how it works, but I know how to kill it.”

“That’s the first time I ever heard you talk like a Marine, Captain Cresida. How do we kill it?”

Cresida indicated the wavery boundaries again. “I’m sure we can generate quantum wave patterns that have opposite characteristics to these waves. In effect, using destructive interference to cancel out the modulated overlays. We don’t have to know what the pattern does or how it’s sustained to create a very short-lived negative image of it. Once the overlays go to a zero probability state, none of them should reappear except in rare random pieces that couldn’t possibly function.”

Geary frowned in puzzlement. “How could even random pieces reappear if they’ve been reduced to zero probability?”

“It’s… a quantum thing, sir. It doesn’t make sense to us, but that’s how things work on that level.”

The systems-security officer nodded. “In effect, sir, Captain Cresida has suggested creating an antiviral program using quantum-probability-pattern detection and cancellation. It’s a totally new concept, but the actual creation of the program is well within our capabilities.”

“Thank you, Captain Cresida. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that all humanity is in your debt. I want Lieutenant Iger in intelligence briefed on this, too. Any ideas how it got into our systems?”

The others exchanged glances, then Desjani answered. “I’ve been thinking about it since Captain Cresida showed me this. You suspect the hypernet gates were the products of aliens’ technology, sir. Dauntless, like every other ship in the fleet, has an Alliance hypernet key on board that carries its own operating system.”

Cresida’s eyes widened. “Which interfaces with the ship’s navigational system. You could be right. We’ll get into the keys and see what we can find.”

The systems-security officer frowned this time. “But if it is coming from the hypernet key, do we dare sanitize the key? It could somehow bear on the proper functioning of the key.”

“Very good point,” Cresida agreed. “We’d have to tread very carefully there. But we can set up an antiviral screen between the key and the rest of the ship’s systems once we get the program working.”

“Do it now,” Geary commanded. “If you need anything, and you’re not getting it, make sure I know.”

“Yes, sir, but I’d like to wait until after the battle to start.”

“The battle?” Geary almost slapped his own forehead. Between concerns about internal enemies and hostile aliens, the actual looming battle had slipped his mind for a moment. “Yes, of course, after the battle. And if anything else about this comes up that doesn’t have to be dealt with until after that, wait to tell me.” I can’t risk being that badly distracted again. A lot of ships in this fleet could die if I’m not focused on the most imminent threat. What Cresida had found wouldn’t have any effect on the outcome of this engagement, but it would make a very big long-term difference in the aliens’ ability to intervene again on the side of the Syndics. We’re figuring out your tricks, you bastards. And when we’ve figured out enough of them, we’re going to discuss this war with you and what humans do to nonhumans who try to manipulate them.

ONE hour to engagement range if both forces continued on their current course and speed vectors. Now Geary could see the Syndic formation as of twelve minutes ago, still in its rectangular box shape, one of the short sides facing the Alliance fleet like a hammerhead rushing to strike. “Ready?” he asked Desjani.

“Now?” Her eyes were already locked on the enemy formation.

“Yeah, I couldn’t do it earlier without acting uncharacteristically, but I need to give the Syndic CEO commanding that flotilla time to see what I’m doing so I’ll have time to see how they react.” Geary tapped his controls. “All units in the Alliance fleet, assume stations in Formation Echo Four at time three zero, formation stations to form relative to flagship Dauntless.”

At time three zero, the big Formation Delta the fleet had been in broke apart, warships weaving everywhere in a complex dance as they proceeded to stations in five subformations. “This is like the formation you used in Lakota the first time,” Rione noted, as the shapes became apparent.

“Sort of,” Geary confirmed. “The coin-shaped subformations are very flexible. I can pivot each of them easily because of the shape and the smaller size. But they’ll be arrayed differently than in the Echo Five we used at Lakota.” Four coins were forming up in a diamond shape, their broad sides facing the enemy. In the open center of the diamond but farther back, a larger coin centered on Dauntless also faced the enemy.

“Are the auxiliaries bait again?

“No. I’m trying to protect them. I’ve got them in the back of my part of the formation because I have to do something with them, and if the Syndics try to go after our auxiliaries there, they’ll have to run a very nasty gauntlet to get near them.”

He waited, everyone waited, as the minutes crawled by and the Syndics raced closer. Surely the Syndic commander wouldn’t simply charge up the middle. But the Syndic wasn’t maneuvering, wasn’t aiming for one part of the Alliance fleet. Twenty minutes to contact. Fifteen minutes to contact. Was the Syndic paralyzed with indecision, stupid, or carefully waiting until the last possible moment to shift his formation’s course?

It was getting too close, and the Syndic box could still veer up, down, or to the side against any single Alliance subformation. Geary knew he couldn’t wait any longer. He mentally split the difference between possible Syndic actions, figuring out Alliance maneuvers that were particularly tricky because of the way momentum would affect course vectors after changes in heading. Hoping he’d gotten it right, he called out orders. “Formation Echo Four Two, turn together and alter course to port zero eight five degrees up one zero degrees at time one five.” That would cause Echo Four Two to change from a flat formation like an onrushing wall with all ships facing forward, into a knife-edge with the ships facing the thin edge, slicing left and up across the space the Syndic flotilla should cross about the same time. “Formation Echo Four Three, turn together and alter course to starboard zero eight one degrees, down one zero degrees at time one six.” The same thing, only with the subformation on the left side of the diamond slicing to the right and down.

He had to take a breath before calling the next two orders. “Formation Echo Four Four, turn together and alter course up zero nine zero degrees at time one seven. Formation Echo Four Five, turn together and alter course down zero nine five degrees at time one eight.” That would bring the top and bottom of the diamond slashing across the center as well.

Now for the biggest single portion of the fleet, the large trailing formation containing Dauntless and the auxiliaries. “Formation Echo Four One, pivot down zero nine zero degrees around flagship Dauntless as guide and alter course up zero one zero degrees at time two zero. All units in the Alliance fleet fire missiles and hell lances as the enemy enters engagement envelopes.”

Desjani raised both eyebrows as she absorbed the orders. “If he keeps coming up the middle, we’ll nail him.”

“Let’s hope he does.” Geary stared at his display, where the Syndics were charging closer at tens of thousands of kilometers per second. His image of the enemy was now almost real-time, only a few seconds delayed by the time required for light to cross the distance between opposing forces. “Damn. There he goes.” The ships in the Syndic box had all angled upward slightly at the last possible moment, aiming to hit the Alliance subformation at the top of the diamond.

But that formation wasn’t there anymore, already turning, momentum carrying it in a wide curve down and toward the Syndics. A Syndic barrage of missiles followed by grapeshot tore toward the expected location of the Alliance subformation, but instead of meeting the Alliance ships the grapeshot met empty space. The Syndic missiles curved into stern chases, trying to catch up with targets that had dodged to one side.

But the Syndic flotilla had made a much smaller course change, so that successive Alliance subformations had crossed near the path of the Syndics moments before the enemy, volleying out missiles of their own. Most of the Alliance specters smashed into the leading edges of the Syndic formation, wreaking havoc with the lighter warships and pummeling the battleships and battle cruisers in that part of the Syndic box.

“Damn,” Geary repeated under his breath. The change in the Syndic course hadn’t been very big, but it had been enough. The Alliance subformations had avoided getting hit by the Syndics, but were also out of hell-lance range as the Syndics cleared the missile barrage. At least he hadn’t wasted any of his fleet’s limited supply of grapeshot.

The same wouldn’t be true as the Syndic box encountered the big trailing Alliance formation. The Alliance auxiliaries, which had been at the back of the formation, had pivoted to the top as the Alliance wall rotated flat and angled upward, protecting them from the fire of the Syndic warships that would pass just under the Alliance ships. “You called this one dead-on,” Desjani murmured, her eyes still fixed on her display.

“Maybe too close,” Geary replied, hastily triggering his command circuit. “Alliance ships in formation Echo Four One, employ all weapons, including grapeshot.”

Dauntless and the other Alliance warships with her hurled out their missiles, followed by tightly packed fields of ball bearings. The Syndic box actually had more warships in it than the Alliance formation with Dauntless, but almost every Alliance ship in the flat-coin formation could engage the Syndics, whereas only the upper layers of the Syndic box could fire on the enemy.

The warships in the upper part of the Syndic box staggered as they hit wave after wave of Alliance missiles, followed by wave after wave of grapeshot as the length of the enemy formation shot past under the length of the Alliance almost horizontal plane, the formations almost touching as the rear of the Alliance warships passed the enemy. The Syndics hadn’t had time to reload the missile launchers they’d used against the first Alliance subformation, but pumped out their own barrage of grapeshot.

In the tiny fraction of a second in which this was happening, hell lances also flashed out, hitting shields weakened by earlier hits and warships whose shields had suffered failures under the blows.

Geary knew he couldn’t take time to evaluate the results of the clash, so even as Dauntless was still shuddering from hits and her watch-standers were calling out damage reports, he sent out more orders. “Formation Echo Four Two, turn starboard one one zero degrees up zero two degrees at time two four. Formation Echo Four Three turn port one one eight degrees up one six degrees at time two four. Formation Echo Four Four turn starboard zero five degrees down one three one degrees at time two five. Formation Echo Four Five turn starboard zero eight degrees up one five two degrees at time two five.” He gasped a breath and kept going. “Formation Echo Four One, turn starboard zero three degrees up one six zero degrees at time two five.”

The combined maneuvers should all bring the five pieces of the Alliance fleet up, down, over, and around and back toward the Syndic box. As he saw what the Syndics were doing, he’d have to adjust his orders, but for now it was enough to order his ships onto the right general headings.

Finally, with a moment to check the results of the encounter, Geary steadied himself as he checked the ship status reports. Most of the Syndic missiles that had chased Formation Echo Four Five had been destroyed by Alliance defenses as they tried to catch up with their targets, but a number had made it through. The heavy cruiser Gusset had lost propulsion, the light cruisers Kote and Caltrop had been knocked out, the destroyer Flail blown apart by several hits, and the battle cruisers Intrepid and Courageous had suffered damage but were staying with the formation.

The brutal exchange of fire between Echo Four One and the Syndic box had cost the Syndics more than it had the Alliance, but the destroyers Ndziga and Tabar had been destroyed, the light cruiser Cercle riddled into wreckage, and the heavy cruisers Armet and Schischak both put out of commission. The scout battleship Braveheart had lost all of its propulsion and weapons and fallen away from the formation as well. Many other Alliance ships had taken damage, though the battleships had naturally suffered the least.

The front edges of the Syndic formation had taken the brunt of missile volleys, then the top had fought the close engagement with Echo Four One. The Alliance advantage in numbers had told, particularly against the most heavily outnumbered Syndic light cruisers and HuKs. Of the twenty-five light cruisers the Syndic force had entered the battle with, twelve were destroyed or too badly damaged to fight, while the Syndic’s forty-two HuKs had lost almost twenty of their number. Five Syndic heavy cruisers were out of the battle. Best of all, four Syndic battle cruisers were out of action, one destroyed and three badly torn up. In addition, one Syndic battleship had lost most of its propulsion and was falling back as the Syndic formation began curving to one side for another strike at the Alliance ships.

I bungled that, Geary thought bitterly. The Syndic commander reacted so late I couldn’t concentrate my attack properly.

Desjani seemed cheerful, though. “Look at the damage on them! They won’t be able to survive another run like that.”

Geary didn’t answer, focusing on the movement of the Syndics. They were still coming around in the huge turn necessary when ships were moving at point one light speed, but he felt certain they were aiming to hit Echo Four One again, perhaps hoping to get some shots at the Alliance auxiliaries this time. He snapped out orders to the other four formations, bringing them in to cross the track the Syndics would follow to intercept Echo Four One once more, his tone drawing a wary look from Desjani.

This time he’d guessed right. As the tattered Syndic box came toward Echo Four One from port and slightly below, the other four Alliance subformations ripped past close ahead of it in quick succession, each pass inflicting more damage on the leading Syndic units so that the front of the Syndic box kept getting shredded and replaced by the warships behind it. More enemy heavy cruisers, light cruisers, and HuKs exploded, broke apart, or simply fell away with critical systems destroyed. Two more Syndic battle cruisers reeled out of the formation, followed by a third, while the forwardmost Syndic battleships took more and more hits.

The Syndics could only hit back at each Alliance formation once, and while they scored some hits, they failed to inflict serious damage on any ships.

“Echo Four One,” Geary ordered harshly, “turn port zero eight degrees up one four degrees at time four three.”

The Syndic box kept on course. Either the Syndic commander hadn’t spotted the Alliance maneuver in time or his flagship had been damaged and couldn’t communicate orders quickly enough. The Alliance formation centered on Dauntless swept over the top edge of the frayed front of the Syndic box, this time able to repeatedly hit the Syndic ships there while taking much less fire in return.

Desjani uttered a small whoop of pleasure as a Syndic battleship exploded in the wake of Echo Four One’s firing pass, followed by the core overloads of another battleship and one of the surviving battle cruisers.

But Geary just stared at his display, trying to rebuild his picture of events and how to bring the different pieces of everything together again. The Syndics were coming around to starboard now, angling slightly down. Alliance fleet subformations were swinging outward on four widely different vectors, their distances from the flagship varying. Geary tried to keep it all straight, tried to coordinate the actions of his subformations, and found it slipping away. He’d been rattled by his failure to call the maneuvers right on the first pass, and now the movements and the necessary maneuvers through different levels of time delay had grown too hard to grasp. But he couldn’t just release the fleet for general pursuit. Not yet. All of his ships would swarm toward the Syndic flotilla in a wild melee that would drastically increase the risk of collision and negate a lot of his advantages in numbers and firepower. Nor could he count on handing the movements of the subformations over to the artificial intelligence in the maneuvering system, because that would focus on predictable highest-probability moves and therefore be predictable itself as well as probably in error.

He didn’t realize he was staring wordlessly at his display, trying to get his mind around the complexity of the situation, as precious seconds ticked by. But then Rione was hissing a question in his ear. “What’s wrong? Our losses aren’t that bad.”

“Too complicated,” Geary whispered. “Can’t coordinate…”

“Then trust your subordinates, Captain Geary!” Rione whispered back angrily. “Let the commanders of your subformations maneuver their own forces while you handle this one!”

Damn. She’s right. Why do I think I have to do this myself? I chose subformation commanders I could trust to do a good job, and now I’m not trusting them. “Captain Duellos, Captain Tulev, Captain Badaya, Captain Cresida, maneuver your subformations independently to engage the enemy.”

The complexity overwhelming him shrank to manageable levels as Geary’s problem narrowed down to maneuvering his own piece of the fleet and keeping an eye on what the other subformations were doing. He swallowed, feeling in control of the situation again, then realized he’d regained control of everything by not trying to control everything personally. Remember that. This isn’t a one-person show. You were starting to think you were Black Jack, weren’t you? he chided himself. “Echo Four One, turn port one seven five degrees, down two one degrees at time five seven.”

Absurdly, even though the battle was continuing, everyone on Dauntless’s bridge seemed to relax. It took Geary a moment to realize that his own anger and distress had been throwing off the others. He forced himself to look around with a smile. “Well done so far. Let’s finish the job.”

Captain Desjani completed ordering some priorities for repairing the damage Dauntless had taken in the first encounters with the enemy, then smiled at him like a lioness who was anticipating kills. “They should have run after the first pass. If we can get their formation to break now, their remaining units won’t last long.”

“Maybe we can help that along.” Geary gestured to Desjani. “Can I get a circuit up to contact the Syndic flotilla?”

Desjani raised one eyebrow, then pointed a finger at her communications watch-stander, who tapped rapidly for a moment and nodded in confirmation, holding up four fingers. “You have it, sir. Channel four.”

Letting out a calming breath, Geary activated the circuit, trying to speak with casual confidence. “To all warships in the Syndicate Worlds’ flotilla engaged with the Alliance fleet, this is Captain John Geary, acting commander of the Alliance fleet. You are doubtless expecting reinforcements in the form of the large Syndicate Worlds’ force this fleet encountered at Lakota about two weeks ago. Be advised that we destroyed that force in its entirety. It won’t be showing up here or anywhere else. I urge you to surrender now and avoid further senseless loss of life.”

That brought another smile from Desjani. “You’re probably going to hurt their morale.”

“That’s the idea.”

“I’ll see what more Dauntless can do to hurt them physically. ” Echo Four One had come around again, approaching the frayed Syndic formation at a high angle this time.

Before Echo Four One could reach the Syndics, Echo Four Three and Echo Four Five hit the front of the battered box again, leaving another enemy battleship drifting in their wake.

“Use the rest of the grapeshot,” Desjani ordered her combat-systems officer as Echo Four One and the Syndic formation raced toward each other again.

Another flash of contact, then Geary watched the fleet’s sensors evaluating damage to the Syndics as Echo Four Two and Echo Four Four came in from above and below the Syndic box. The three remaining Syndic battle cruisers had lost all shields and were lashing out frantically at extreme range as the next two Alliance subformations approached. Only six heavy cruisers remained with the box, the rest of their number scattered in various states of destruction along the path the Syndic formation had taken through space. Five light cruisers and a dozen HuKs also had survived. The core of the Syndic formation remained its battleships, five of which were still in good shape.

Geary barely had time to hope that the commanders of Echo Four Two and Echo Four Four didn’t push their luck too far against the five battleships when his subformations made their latest firing runs, tearing past so close to the Syndics that Geary felt a momentary spurt of fear.

In the wake of the latest Alliance assault, one more Syndic battleship staggered away from the box formation and two of the three battle cruisers were gone. But Courageous, Incredible, and Illustrious had taken serious damage, the heavy cruiser Gusoku had blown up, and the destroyers Cestus and Balta were also gone. “This battle is not going well,” Geary muttered to himself.

But Desjani heard. “The Syndics aren’t making mistakes, ” she agreed. “But it won’t save them. One more firing run-”

“They’re breaking!” the operations watch-stander shouted exuberantly.

“Thank you, Mr. Gaciones,” Desjani replied. “I can hear without you yelling.”

As the embarrassed watch-stander turned back to his duties, Geary watched on his display as what was left of the Syndic box finally disintegrated. Two of the battleships stayed together, and three HuKs clung to their protection, but every other Syndic ship bolted in different directions, seeking to outrun any Alliance pursuit.

That simplified things. “All ships in Echo Four Two, Echo Four Three, Echo Four Four, and Echo Four Five, general pursuit. Break formation and engage any enemy targets of opportunity. Echo Four One will engage the two battleships that have remained in company.”

Which was easier said than done given the time and space needed to turn the warships of Echo Four One, but the Syndic battleships were too close and too cumbersome to be able to outrun pursuit. As Echo Four One swung around, Geary watched the rest of his subformations fragment so fast it looked like they’d been blown apart by some huge blast. Individual Alliance warships locked on to Syndic warships and leaped onto firing runs, each surviving Syndic ship becoming the target of many Alliance strikes. On the display, the projected paths of the Alliance warships formed a tangled web from which the Syndics were frantically trying to escape.

“What the hell are Brilliant and Inspire doing?” Desjani demanded of no one in particular.

Geary looked. The two battle cruisers had broken away from their formation and from Opportune, the other battle cruiser in their division, and were accelerating toward intercepts with the two Syndic battleships. His anger at the costs of this engagement flared up again. We’ve already lost enough ships today, but those idiots are ignoring my orders and going one-on-one with battleships.

“They’ll get there well ahead of us,” Desjani protested, her disappointment clear. “But why? They can’t take down even one of those battleships on their own.”

“No,” Geary agreed. He tapped his controls harder than usual. “Brilliant, Inspire, this is Captain Geary. Break off your firing run on the pair of Syndic battleships.”

He waited. He checked the distance and how much time it would take his message to reach those two battle cruisers and for an answer to come. But no reply came, and both battle cruisers continued on their charge. Then he realized that Opportune had come around and was trying to catch up with Brilliant and Inspire as she also headed for an intercept of the Syndic battleships. This time he needed several slow breaths to calm himself before calling the ships again. “Brilliant, Inspire, and Opportune, you are ordered to immediately break off your firing pass on the two Syndic battleships.”

More time passed as Echo Four One lined up for its own run on the Syndic battleships. “There’s not enough time to get another message to them,” Desjani noted.

Geary felt his jaw hurting and tried to relax it as he watched three battle cruisers conducting a senseless charge against superior forces.

Brilliant and Inspire shot past the two Syndic battleships, concentrating their fire on one of the battleships and passing close enough to unleash their null fields as well as hell lances and what must be their last grapeshot. The shields on the targeted battleship flared repeatedly but held until the second null field penetrated enough to take a chunk out of one propulsion unit and slow the battleship.

But the Syndics had also concentrated their heavier fire, and Brilliant staggered away with very serious damage, its own propulsion systems shot up and most weapons out of commission.

Then Opportune came in alone, one battle cruiser facing the fire of two battleships. Syndic hell lances crashed the Alliance battle cruiser’s shields, then ripped into Opportune. Only momentum saved the ship as she tumbled away from the Syndic warships, horribly damaged.

“If Opportune’s commanding officer is still alive, I’m going to kill him,” Geary vowed, thinking of how many Alliance sailors must have just died on that ship for no reason.

“Six months ago I might have applauded him,” Desjani remarked in wondering tones. “Now I see how senseless it was. What’s the point of bravery that only aids the enemy in destroying you?” Her voice changed, hardening. “All right, Dauntless,” she called out to her bridge, “let’s make those Syndics sorry for what they did to Opportune.”

The three battle cruisers had weakened the shields on the Syndic battleships, though taking much worse harm in exchange. The warships of Echo Four One now hit the Syndics over and over again as the formation raced past, knocking the battleships’ shields out completely, the four Alliance battleships with Echo Four One administering the death-blows that turned one of the Syndic battleships into drifting wreckage and knocked out most of the systems on the other. “All warships in Echo Four One, general pursuit. Break formation and engage targets of opportunity.” Geary switched to an internal circuit. “Lieutenant Iger, I want to know if any of the escape pods out there hold any Syndic CEOs. See what you can find out.”

It had been a messy, painful battle. But the Alliance fleet had still paid far less than the Syndics. As he watched the wreck of Opportune tumble through space, Geary couldn’t find much comfort in that.

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