by Jack Campbell
The captain of the Syndicate Worlds merchant ship approaching the jump point out of Baldur star system might have been having a good day right up until the point that several squadrons of Alliance fleet destroyers appeared coming out of that jump point.
He might have had a few minutes to wonder if he could somehow run past the Alliance destroyers and jump out of the system to safety, before many more destroyers appeared and before squadrons of light cruisers materialized behind the destroyers.
He and his crew had definitely run for the merchant ship's one escape pod by the time divisions of heavy cruisers, battle cruisers and battleships emerged from the jump point.
Syndicate Worlds authorities on the one habitable world orbiting Baldur would see the annihilation of the merchant ship and hear its crew's calls for rescue in about six hours, about the same time the light from the jump point reached them and they saw that the Alliance fleet had appeared in their backwater star system.
They wouldn't be having a good day, either.
"Rapier and Bulawa report destruction of the Syndic merchant ship. One escape pod noted leaving the merchant ship. Singhauta reports destruction of the automated traffic management buoy monitoring the jump point." The watch stander's voice rang calmly and clearly across the bridge of the Alliance battle cruiser Dauntless. "No minefields detected or suspicious anomalies sighted."
Captain John 'Black Jack' Geary nodded to acknowledge the words, his attention focused on the display floating before his command seat. He could have picked out from the display every piece of information the watch stander had just provided, but experience had proven that humans remained the best filters for highlighting important data. If some other human handled that, Geary could concentrate on the bigger picture. "Which one of our ships is in the best position to pick up the escape pod from the merchant?"
"Wait, sir. Battleaxe, sir."
Geary tapped the proper communications control without having to search for it, relieved that the unfamiliar equipment of this future was finally becoming second-nature to him. "Battleaxe, this is Captain Geary. Request you pick up the Syndic escape pod. I want to interrogate that merchant crew."
The reply took a minute, naturally, since the destroyer Battleaxe was about twenty light-seconds distant from Dauntless. It took her twenty seconds to receive the transmission, and another twenty seconds for the answer to make the return journey. "Yes, sir. Who should we deliver them to?"
"Dauntless," Geary advised.
He was still awaiting Battleaxe's acknowledgement when a cool voice spoke from behind him. "What do you hope to learn from the crew of a merchant ship, Captain Geary? The Syndic leadership wouldn't have entrusted them with any classified information."
Geary glanced back, seeing that Victoria Rione, Co-president of the Callas Republic and a senator of the Alliance, was giving him a curious look. "That ship was about to jump out of the system. That means they likely jumped into the system within the last few weeks instead of being a purely in-system trader. They'll have news from other Syndic star systems. I want to know what they've been told about this fleet, and about the war in general. I also want to see if we can get them to cough up any rumors they've heard in their travels."
"You think that information will be valuable?" Rione pressed.
"I have no idea, but if I don't get it I won't know, will I?"
She nodded, giving little clue to her opinion. Not that Geary found that unusual. He and Rione had been lovers for a few weeks, in the physical sense of the word, but she had been distant since just before they had left Ilion star system and he had yet to learn why. "Then perhaps you should have the prisoners delivered to Vengeance," Rione added. "That battleship has the best interrogation facilities in the fleet, or so I've heard."
Captain Tanya Desjani, sitting to one side of Geary, jerked her head around and spoke coldly. "Dauntless has excellent interrogation facilities and can ensure Captain Geary receives every measure of support he requests." Desjani wasn't about to let anyone imply that any other ship in the fleet was in any way superior to her ship.
Rione gazed back impassively at Dauntless' commanding officer for a moment, then inclined her head slightly. "I did not mean to imply that Dauntless could not carry out the mission effectively."
"Thank you," Desjani replied, her voice no warmer.
Geary tried not to frown. Desjani and Rione had apparently been just one step shy of going for each other's throats ever since Ilion, and he hadn't been able to find out the cause of that, either. Bad enough he had to worry about the Syndic fleet without also trying to figure out why there was bad blood between two of the best advisors he had. He focused back on the display, where the fleet's sensors were busy adding newly detected information, then muttered a curse.
"What's the matter, sir?" Desjani asked, instantly alert as her own eyes scanned her display. "Oh. Damn."
"Yeah," Geary agreed. He knew Rione was listening and wondering. "There's another Syndic merchant ship almost at the jump point on the other side of the system. It'll have time to see us before it jumps out, and carry that news to the Syndic authorities elsewhere."
"It's a good thing we don't intend lingering here," Desjani added. "There's nothing in Baldur that we need. It's just another second-rate star system."
Geary nodded, his thoughts going back. Back a century, to before the war, to before he'd fought a desperate battle against the first Syndic surprise attack, before he'd barely escaped in a damaged survival pod to drift for a hundred years in survival sleep, before he'd found himself suddenly in command of a fleet whose survival depended on him. Back when he was just John Geary, a typical fleet officer, not the mythical hero "Black Jack" Geary who these descendants of the people he'd known believed could do anything. "People used to go to Baldur before the war," he remarked in an almost-absentminded way. "Tourists, even from the Alliance."
Desjani stared at him in amazement. "Tourists?" After a century of bitter warfare, the idea of pleasure trips into what had been enemy territory for her entire life seemed to be incomprehensible to her.
"Yeah." Geary shifted his gaze to the display of the primary inhabited world. "There's some spectacular scenery down there. Even with all the worlds humanity has settled, there was something unique about it, something you had to be there to appreciate. That's what everyone said, anyway."
"Unique?" Desjani sounded simply doubtful, now.
"Yeah," Geary repeated. "I saw an interview with someone who had been there. He said there was something awesome about it, like your ancestors came to stand beside you while you looked around. Maybe something happened to it, though, since Baldur didn't get a hypernet gate." He glanced over at Desjani, who still seemed baffled but also as usual willing to take the word of a man she believed had been sent by the living stars to save the Alliance.
She indicated her display. "Do you want to avoid bombarding the primary planet, then?"
Geary almost choked. After a century of trading atrocities with the Syndics, even Alliance officers could be remarkably cold blooded. "Yes," he managed to get out. "If at all possible."
"Very well," Desjani agreed. "The military facilities seem to be primarily orbital, so if we have to take them out it won't require surface bombardment."
"That's convenient," Geary agreed dryly. He settled back, trying to relax nerves which had been on edge as the fleet entered Baldur.
"Syndic combatants identified orbiting the third planet," Dauntless' combat watch stander announced as if on cue. "A additional Syndic combatant has been located in spacedock orbiting the fourth planet."
Geary, hoping he hadn't too obviously jerked to attention at the announcement, zoomed his display in on the enemy ships. Anything which hadn't been seen until now had to be pretty small. They were. "Three obsolete Nickel corvettes and an even older light cruiser." The cruiser was older than him, too, Geary reflected. And here we both are still fighting a war far beyond a time either of us ever planned on. At least I'm in better physical shape than that ancient cruiser probably is.
"Five and half light hours distant," Desjani confirmed. "Orbiting between the third and fourth planets. They'll see us in roughly five more hours." She smiled. "They obviously weren't expecting us."
Geary smiled back, feeling relieved. Every time the fleet left jump he had to worry about encountering a Syndic ambush. The only way to avoid that was to keep the Syndic leadership guessing as to where the fleet would be next. The lack of even picket warships posted near Baldur's jump points meant the Syndics had no idea the Alliance fleet would be showing up here, or at least hadn't figured it out as a possible destination in time to get a courier ship to this star system. "Odds are they'll run, then. If they don't run, I want an analysis of what they might be concerned with protecting."
"Yes, sir," Desjani acknowledged, gesturing to one of her watch standers. "Is there something else, sir?"
"What?" Geary realized he was staring tensely at the display and deliberately relaxed his breathing again. "No."
But Desjani had figured out his worry. "The fleet seems to be holding formation."
"Yes." Seems to be. If any of the outermost combatants took it into their minds to charge toward the Syndic warships, Dauntless wouldn't see it for almost half a minute. But everyone appeared to be holding formation. "Maybe what I'm trying to show the officers in this fleet about discipline in battle is really getting through to everyone." That was a cheerful thought.
Rione promptly threw a bucket of reality over him. "Or maybe they're holding formation because the Syndic combatants are five and half light hours distant. Even at full acceleration an attempted intercept would take quite a while."
Desjani gave Rione another cool look as she had the navigation system run the intercept. "If the Syndics held course and didn't run, an intercept would require about twenty-five hours at maximum acceleration and deceleration," she confirmed reluctantly. "But I assure you, Madam Co-president, that before Captain Geary assumed command we would still have had ships already launching themselves on that charge."
Rione smiled thinly and nodded. "I have no reason to doubt your assessment, Captain Desjani."
"Thank you, Madam Co-president."
"No, thank you, Captain."
Geary took a moment to be grateful that his officers didn't wear ceremonial swords. From the look in Desjani's eyes Rione should be grateful for that as well. "Alright," he announced out loud to distract the two women, "To all appearances this star system is totally unprepared for our arrival. That means we should have a chance to intimidate them into avoiding doing anything stupid." Desjani nodded immediately, followed a noticeable few seconds later by Rione. "Captain Desjani, please broadcast to all Syndic installations that any actions taken to hinder or attack this fleet will be met with overwhelming force."
"Yes, sir. With your name on the end?"
"Yeah." Geary had never aspired to have a name that would frighten people, but apparently more than a few Syndics also believed in the legendary Alliance hero 'Black Jack.'
Victoria Rione spoke again. "Your messages are usually longer."
Geary shrugged. "I'm trying something different. They'll have no idea what our intentions are, which will keep them guessing and worried. Maybe enough so that they'll sit tight and not try to mess with us." Not that I'm planning on doing anything but getting to the next jump point. He studied the display, seeing the course leading to the jump point for Wendaya as a long arc passing above the plane of the Baldur star system. The fleet wouldn't have to go anywhere near any Syndic installations, and the Syndics didn't have anything in system that could be used to go after the fleet.
It all looked so perfect that Geary found himself double-checking, unwilling to trust a situation without an overt threat.
But nothing looked wrong. He finally relaxed again, pondering his formation, then calling up the individual ship status read-outs. Very little information could be exchanged in jump space, but ever since the fleet had arrived here automatic reports had been flowing in to Dauntless with information on the current state of every ship. If Geary had been so inclined he could've found out exactly how many sailors on any one particular ship had head colds at the moment. He had known commanders who had concentrated on things like that, somehow expecting the business of actually running the fleet to happen on its own while they dug ever deeper into trivial details.
What he was seeing wasn't trivial, though. Geary couldn't prevent a gasp of exasperation as he looked at the primary status read-outs, drawing glances from the others on the bridge. "Logistics," he explained very briefly to Desjani.
She nodded. "Dauntless is getting below recommended fuel cell reserves, too."
"I knew that. I didn't appreciate how much of the rest of the fleet was also at or below those levels." Geary shook his head as he checked another report. "And expendable munitions. We used a lot of mines at Sancere and Ilion, and Spectre missile stockpiles are low on most ships" He leaned back again, taking a long, calming breath. "Thank the living stars for the auxiliaries. Without them along to manufacture new fuel cells and weaponry this fleet would have been trapped and helpless a few star systems back."
That simplified his plans for getting through Baldur star system. Keep the fleet close together, keep fuel expenditures to a minimum, avoid using weapons, and give the auxiliaries plenty of time to replenish the fuel and munitions supplies on the warships.
Geary's feeling of satisfaction vanished as he checked the status of the four "fast fleet auxiliaries," which weren't fast except in the imaginations of whoever had chosen that name for them. Difficult to protect and slow as they were, the self-propelled manufacturing facilities called auxiliaries were vital to getting this fleet home. As long as they could keep the fleet supplied, that is. "Why am I seeing critical shortage reports on the auxiliaries?" Geary wondered out loud.. "We looted every raw material we could possibly use back at Sancere. The auxiliaries' supply bunkers were supposed to have been topped off."
Desjani frowned and checked the figures herself. "According to these reports, all of the auxiliaries will have to stop manufacturing fuel cells and munitions soon due to shortages of critical materials. That doesn't make sense. The auxiliaries certainly loaded a lot of something at Sancere."
The situation had looked too good to be true. So, of course, it had been. Muttering curses under his breath, Geary put in a call to the flagship of the auxiliaries division. Witch was a healthy fifteen light seconds distant, causing a very aggravating delay in communications as the message crawled to the other ship at the speed of light and the reply crawled back. Only in the vast distances of space did light seem slow.
The image of Captain Tyrosian finally appeared, looking the very model of someone bearing bad news. But all she said was "Yes, sir."
At least the delay in message times had given Geary time to phrase a diplomatic question. "Captain Tyrosian, I'm looking at the status reports for your ships. All of them show shortages of critical raw materials."
Another wait. Finally, Tyrosian's image nodded unhappily. "Yes, sir, that is correct."
Geary fought down a grimace as it became clear that Tyrosian's reply wasn't more enlightening. "How is that possible? I thought all of the auxiliaries filled their stockpiles with raw materials at Sancere. How could we have ended up with shortages of critical materials this soon?"
The seconds crawled by, too long to ignore and too brief to allow time to do anything else. Tyrosian looked even unhappier as she nodded again. "The reports are accurate, Captain Geary. I've been trying to determine the cause of the problem. I'm fairly certain it's because of the shopping lists provided by the automated logistics system."
Another pause. Geary barely refrained from pounding the arm of his seat in frustration. "How could the automated systems have made such a serious misjudgment of which supplies the auxiliaries would need to manufacture items critical to this fleet? Didn't your ships follow the recommendations from the logistics system?"
He spent the time waiting for a reply imagining the sorts of things he could do to Captain Tyrosian for screwing up something this important. It didn't help his temper that Tyrosian kept proving the old adage that engineers weren't the best people in the world when it came to verbal communications. Tyrosian kept telling him things that left critical information out as if expecting he would know everything she did.
When her reply came this time, Tyrosian spoke in the time-hallowed manner of engineers everywhere as they recited their professional opinions. "We did follow the system recommendations. That was the cause of the failure, Captain Geary. The systems provided flawed recommendations."
Geary hesitated, taken aback by the statement despite his growing anger. "Explain that. Why would the systems have provided flawed recommendations? Are you saying the system was sabotaged somehow so that it didn't provide good information?" The implications of that were very serious indeed. If the automated systems that helped run the fleet became unreliable or were somehow hacked, it could cripple the fleet as badly as a lack of fuel and weaponry.
But Tyrosian shook her head as her reply eventually arrived. "No, sir. There wasn't, and isn't, anything wrong with the logistics systems. They're functioning exactly as they should. The problem lay in the underlying assumptions the logistics system used in extrapolating the needs of the fleet." She swallowed, clearly uncomfortable but bulling ahead with her report. "The logistics systems base future needs on projected usage and losses. Those projections are in turn constructed from historical patterns."
Tyrosian grimaced. "Under your command, the fleet hasn't been experiencing usage of munitions or losses of ships in accordance with historical patterns. As a result, the logistics systems assumed we would have much fewer ships requiring resupply, and that fewer munitions and fuel cells would be required."
It took Geary a moment to figure that out. "I should have been losing more ships every time we fought? I shouldn't have been using so many munitions or maneuvering so much?"
Seconds dragged by until Tyrosian nodded again. "Essentially, yes. We've been fighting more frequently and losing much fewer ships than called for by the underlying assumptions of the logistics systems. Battles have been more complex, requiring the use of more fuel cells. More long-range weapons have been used than is usually the case. None of us caught how that would change projected requirements. As a result, the logistics systems assumed a higher level of need for battle damage repair materials, and a lower level for resupply of surviving ships. We have plenty of what we need to patch the holes in Warrior, Orion and Majestic, but we're short on some critical raw materials that are used in small quantities in things like fuel cells and Spectre missiles."
Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. Accustomed as he was to the perversity of the universe, it was still astounding to realize that he was facing problems because he had been doing too well in battle. Geary looked over at Desjani. "We're in trouble because the fleet hasn't been losing enough ships when we fight."
To his surprise, Desjani took only a moment to figure it out. "We need to adapt the systems to you, sir. I should've realized that, too."
Geary gave her a grim smile. It was just like Desjani to immediately accept a measure of responsibility whether she bore any or not. Unlike, say, Captain Tyrosian, who seemed at a loss on what to do, waiting expectantly for Geary's orders and not offering any suggestions. "Tanya," he asked, using Desjani's first name to emphasize his confidence in her, "what do you recommend?"
"All of the auxiliaries are low on the critical materials?" Desjani checked the detailed status reports again and rolled her eyes. Her feelings about engineers running ships were clear. Then again, practically every other one of Geary's ship captains would agree with her on that count. "Jinn's stockpiles of those materials are in slightly better shape than Witch's," Desjani noted out loud, "Goblin's slightly worse, and Titan's stockpiles are in about the same condition as those on Witch." Geary tried not to think about all of the materials they had looted at Sancere, how easily they could have loaded much more of all of those critical materials. "We need more," Desjani concluded.
"So I assumed," Geary replied, trying not to go ballistic on Desjani over the obviousness of her observation. "Where do we get it?"
Desjani gestured to the system display. "The Syndics have mines in this star system, of course. They'll have what we need."
Geary grinned with sudden relief. My mind was still stuck back in Sancere. Thank our ancestors that Desjani's was here in Baldur. "Madam Co-president," he began.
She forestalled his question, frowning. "We've encountered sabotage from the Syndics before, Captain Geary. Asking them for the materials we need, even letting them know we need them, could be a serious error. I don't see any way diplomacy can be counted upon in this case."
Desjani reluctantly nodded in agreement. "That's almost certainly correct, sir."
Geary pondered that, then faced the window where Tyrosian's image waited. The engineering captain was visibly nervous, but holding herself ready for the tongue-lashing, or worse, she probably expected. The sight helped drain the anger from Geary. Maybe Tyrosian wasn't the smartest or most capable officer in the fleet, but she knew her job, knew engineering, and had been a solid performer. She hadn't foreseen the problem, but automated systems bred dependency in their users. Everyone knew that. He was lucky Tyrosian had been able to identify the problem instead of just blindly clinging to the flawed output from the logistics systems.
So Geary forced himself to give Tyrosian a confident look, as if he had never doubted her ability to handle this. "Okay, to summarize, all four auxiliaries are facing serious shortages of a few critical raw materials. Unless we stock up on critical materials as soon as possible we'll have to cease production of vital components. Are those raw materials available in this system?" Remembering the increasingly annoying time delay in answers, he added a further question. "Would they be available at any particular locations among the mining activity we've spotted?"
About thirty seconds later he saw Tyrosian's face light up. "Yes, sir. Mining activity on asteroids and near the gas giants has already been detected and analyzed by the fleet's sensors. The most likely location where we'd find what we need is . . . um . . . at this site on the fourth moon of the second gas giant." A secondary window popped up, revealing the place which Tyrosian had designated.
"What's your assessment of the wisdom of demanding that the Syndics supply us with those materials?"
Tyrosian's alarm was obvious. "That wouldn't be wise at all, sir. They'd know why we need those particular materials. They're all trace elements, found and used in small quantities. The Syndics could easily contaminate or destroy whatever stockpiles exist since they wouldn't be large."
It just kept getting better. Geary's eyes went back to the display. He had to surprise the Syndics with a raid on a mining facility, which would have been a lot easier if the Syndics hadn't been able to see every one of his ships coming for days before they reached their objective. "Is there anything else I need to know, Captain Tyrosian? Anything else the auxiliaries need? Anything else that might impair their ability to keep this fleet in fuel cells and expendable munitions?" Not that he really wanted to hear any more bad news, but bad news never got better just because you didn't listen to it. Usually, it got worse.
Tyrosian shook her head again. "No, sir. Nothing of which I'm aware. I'll have each department on every auxiliary do a worst-case assessment, just to be certain."
"Good." Now, what to do about Tyrosian? She had screwed up mightily, and left Geary to find out instead of telling him. The mistake had quite literally put the entire fleet at greater risk, and with the entire fleet fleeing for its life deep in Syndic space, increasing that risk took real effort.
But she had done a good job, or at least a decent one, up until now. And who did he chose in her place if he relieved her? The captain of Titan was enthusiastic but too young and inexperienced. In a fleet heavily focused on honor and seniority, elevating him to command of the auxiliaries division would create a lot of resentment, and there wasn't even any guarantee that he could handle that much responsibility this soon. Goblin's captain had a service record remarkable for its bland mediocrity. Jinn's commanding officer had only recently assumed the position after Geary had relieved his successor. And that successor, Captain Gundel, had been so aggressively uninterested in serving the needs of the warships that he might as well have been deliberately helping the ends of the enemy. Gundel was parked in a small office somewhere on Titan, under orders to produce an exhaustive study on the fleet's needs whose sole purpose was to get him completely out of Geary's hair even if it took years to get this fleet home.
Remembering Gundel made Geary's decision easier. Tyrosian might not be perfect, but the alternatives all seemed worse. And, damn it all, as far as I can tell she's tried her hardest. "Captain Tyrosian, I'm unhappy that we're faced with this situation, and I wish you had brought it to my attention sooner, but you have analyzed the cause of the problem and I trust are taking measures to ensure it doesn't happen again." At least, he was confident she would be taking such measures as soon as she heard Geary saying that. "I need your best estimate for a shopping list of what we need and I want a team of engineers ready to physically land at any Syndic mining facilities and assess the stockpiles. Get both of those things ready."
Tyrosian blinked as if surprised. "Yes, sir." Had she realized she was in danger of being relieved? Probably. She might not be among his best officers, but she was good enough to be among those who understood the concept of responsibility. Unlike his worst officers. If only the real idiots among his captains were willing to offer their resignations when they made big mistakes. But of course they wouldn't, even if they did manage to realize they'd messed up badly. That was one of the main things that made them idiots.
Geary favored Tyrosian with another confident look. "I also need a plan for replenishing and refueling the fleet's ships with what the auxiliaries were able to manufacture on the way here, with priority for those with the lowest fuel and expendable munitions stockpiles."
"Yes, sir. That's not a problem. Can the fleet formation be adjusted?"
"Yeah. I want the resupply done as quickly and efficiently as possible."
"You'll get that," Tyrosian promised. She hesitated. "I'm sorry, sir."
Geary paused, too. This time he felt sure his expression was genuine as he nodded to Tyrosian. "Thank you, Captain. I already knew that. That's why you're still in command of Witch and the auxiliaries division, and that's why I'm confident you'll perform well in both of those positions."
He closed his eyes for a moment after Tyrosian's image vanished, hoping he had handled that right, trying to figure out if he had truly meant what he had said or just been playing political games. Presenting a false face to the enemy could play as big a role in winning as divisions of battleships. Geary was comfortable with that. But he sometimes had to do the same with his own officers and he had never managed to be at ease with it. Did he really believe in Tyrosian, or did he just regard her as the least bad of the choices available to him? But even if I did feel that way, what purpose would it serve to tell her that?
There's work to be done. Stop brooding. Geary's eyes opened and swung back to the display of Baldur system. He wasn't at all sure how they'd manage to get those raw materials from the Syndics, but he was certain who he needed to do it. Geary tapped his controls to bring up another window. Within moments, the image of his Marine commander appeared. "Colonel Carabali, we have a job for your troops."
Here we go again. Geary braced himself, then entered the compartment where he held meetings with his fleet captains. It wasn't very large, and the table within could only comfortably seat perhaps a dozen people in reality, but the fleet's virtual conferencing software made the room and the table apparently big enough to hold every captain in the fleet. After enduring numerous meetings in here, Geary was still trying to decide if that was a blessing or a curse.
He took up position at the head of the table, looking down along both sides. Apparently seated nearest him were the most senior officers, the lines of captains running into the distance in decreasing seniority until the most junior ship commanders waited at the end. Only one other person was physically present, Captain Desjani, who seemed as unenthusiastic about the meeting as Geary himself, though Geary hoped he was doing a better job of hiding it.
The absence of Captain Numos and Captain Faresa, both normally "seated" close by him and both serious thorns in his side, didn't offer much comfort. They were both under arrest but a constant source of disruption even now. Geary only had to look down the table to see eyes which were either wary or hiding whatever emotions they might have held. Fortunately, there were also many officers who clearly displayed near-worshipful belief in Black Jack Geary as well as those who believed less in the legend of Black Jack and more in the man who had led the fleet this far. He couldn't help wondering how long it would be before he screwed up so badly that their growing faith would be crushed by the reality of his own human fallibility.
"Welcome to Baldur," Geary began. As he said the words, he realized that had been the title of a popular documentary over a century ago. No one else showed any reaction, though, so he was probably the only person in the fleet who remembered it. There wasn't anything unusual about that, of course. "I'd planned on just taking us above the plane of the system to the next jump point, but as usual our plans have changed."
A ripple of interest ran around the long, long virtual length of the table as Geary called up a display before him. A representation of the glowing yellow star Baldur floated in the center, positioned around it the several significant planets the star system boasted, and scattered through the system symbols which marked Syndic activity or installations. "We need to pay a visit to the Syndic mining facility on the fourth moon of the second gas giant." That symbol flared brighter. "The auxiliaries require restocking of certain critical materials, and we're going to acquire those materials there. Or rather, our Marines are going to acquire them." Geary nodded toward the image of Colonel Carabali.
Carabali, like Geary, had ascended to command when her superior was murdered by the Syndics during negotiations. Being a Marine, she hadn't let that intimidate her in the least while dealing with the fleet officers around her. Now she spoke in the dry, precise cadence of a briefing officer. "There's concern that the Syndics could either sabotage the stockpiles we need or contaminate them," she began.
"Why?" someone interrupted.
Geary fixed his eyes on the speaker. Commander Yin, acting commanding officer of the Orion and doubtless a protégé of Captain Numos. Yin appeared slightly nervous but still belligerent, her attitude perhaps an unconscious imitation of Numos' own. "If you'll let Colonel Carabali finish presenting her information, you'll hear the answer to that," Geary stated, realizing his voice sounded harsher than he had intended.
Carabali glanced around, then continued speaking. "The materials in question are trace elements. The fleet has been able to confirm the existence of the stockpiles we need at that mining facility by analyzing the message traffic in this system and assessing what we can see of the mining facility from this distance. Since the relatively small size of the stockpiles makes sabotage or contamination easy, Captain Geary asked me to plan a raid designed to surprise anyone occupying or possibly defending the mining facility."
Carabali paused and Captain Tulev of the battle cruiser Leviathan gave her a questioning but not hostile look. "Surprise? How will we achieve surprise?"
Geary answered. "We need to misdirect the Syndics, mislead them as to our intentions. They'll see us coming, but we have to convince them that we're swinging by purely to destroy the facility, not to take anything from it." He tapped controls and a series of arcs appeared in the representation of Baldur star system, curving from point to point among planets and asteroids. "We're going to start at the outer edges of Baldur and work our way inward, passing close to Syndic facilities on the way and destroying them with hell lance fire at close range."
This time Captain Casia of the battleship Conqueror spoke up, frowning as he did so. "That doesn't make sense. Not even the Syndics would believe that we'd take the time to engage fixed targets at close range when we could just launch kinetic rounds at them from a distance."
Geary checked to confirm his suspicions, that Conqueror was part of the Third Battleship Division, which included both Orion and Majestic. Captain Casia hadn't stood out in earlier meetings, perhaps overshadowed by the presence of Numos or Faresa. He couldn't recall any grounds to assume Casia was like those two others, so Geary answered without assuming any antagonism. "It's not unreasonable that our fleet would be low on kinetic projectiles. As a matter of fact, we are low on them because of all the rounds we launched at Sancere. There's also no significant threat to us in this star system. Under those circumstances, it makes perfect sense to conserve kinetic rounds and employ hell lance fire. The Syndics will believe we're even lower on kinetic rounds than we actually are, which might benefit us in the future in other ways."
Casia chewed his lip, a scowl just barely visible. The image of Captain Duellos of the battle cruiser Courageous caught Geary's eye and made a dismissive glance at Casia in a wordless assessment of the other officer. After a long moment which might have been attributable to nothing more than the distance separating Dauntless and Conqueror, Casia shook his head. "We're all low on kinetic rounds? What have the auxiliaries been doing?"
"Manufacturing fuel cells, Captain Casia," Duellos advised in a drawl that brought a flush to Casia's face. "I assume you prefer to be able to maneuver your ship, or do you want to drift through space with a full inventory of kinetic rounds on hand?"
Geary could easily judge Casia's status in the fleet by the reactions of the other officers. Many grinned at Duellos' put-down, but others seemed more unhappy with Duellos than with Casia. Odd, since Geary couldn't recall the man causing him any trouble before this. Why had the malcontents chosen him to rally around?
Geary thumped the table with his fist to forestall any other comments. "Thank you, Captain Duellos. Do you have any further questions, Captain Casia?"
"Yes. Yes, I do." Casia stood to emphasize his words. "I understand we need these materials because the auxiliaries didn't stock up properly at Sancere. The entire fleet has been hazarded, but nothing has been done to those responsible."
He paused, while Geary glanced toward Captain Tyrosian and saw her stiffen. "Is that an observation or a question?" Geary asked Casia.
"It's . . . both."
"Then I will assure you," Geary stated evenly, "that I have discussed the matter with Captain Tyrosian and she retains my confidence as commander of the auxiliaries division."
"What did you say to her?" Casia demanded.
Geary couldn't stop a frown, in fact let it stay in place as he gazed back at Casia. He recognized what was happening, the sort of debate that would have been unthinkable in the fleet he had known, not simply arguing courses of action but actively challenging the fleet commander and trying to manipulate the level of support the commander could count on. Any moment now Casia would probably call for a vote insisting that Geary remove Tyrosian from her job.
And that wasn't going to happen while he was in command. "Captain Casia," Geary said in his coldest voice, "I am not in the habit of discussing in public my private conversations with other officers. What I said to Captain Tyrosian is between her and me, just as anything I say to you in private will remain between us."
"We deserve to know that you'll take effective action –" Casia began.
"Are you challenging my authority to command this fleet, Captain Casia?" Geary demanded in a voice that rang through the room.
Silence reigned for a moment, then Captain Tulev spoke as if to himself, though his voice carried. "The Syndics have learned at Kaliban, at Sancere, and at Ilion, that Captain Geary is a very effective commander."
Commander Yin's voice wavered slightly as she jumped back into the conversation. "The traditions of the fleet call for open debate and consensus among the captains. What's wrong with wanting to continue that tradition? Why wouldn't Captain Geary be in favor of maintaining the traditions that have kept this fleet fighting?"
Captain Desjani had kept herself quiet up until now but finally erupted at the direct attack on Geary. "Captain Geary believes in our traditions! He's reminded us of traditions we'd forgotten!"
"Captain Geary established those traditions a century ago!" another voice insisted. To Geary's surprise, it was Commander Gaes of the Lorica. "He fights! And more importantly he knows how to fight! He hasn't sent this fleet into any Syndic traps!"
The clear reference to the disaster at Vidha brought a momentary stop to the debate. Both Casia and Yin were giving Commander Gaes hard looks, but she didn't seem to care. After choosing to follow Captain Falco in a rebellious force of Alliance fleet ships and then watching that force get cut to ribbons at Vidha, Gaes probably had little tolerance for anyone who might be advocating the sort of challenge to Geary's command that had led to that disaster.
Casia finally shook his head. "We're in a difficult position. The fleet can't afford to be at the mercy of those who've positioned themselves as favorites of the fleet commander, regardless of competence."
"That's enough." Geary saw that everyone had turned to stare at him and realized that must have been his voice speaking in those tones. He changed his tone with an effort, trying to sound more like a commander and less like an enraged deity. To sound less like Black Jack. "Captain Casia, this fleet has too much experience with officers incapable of carrying out their responsibilities. I won't tolerate anyone like that in a command position. Is that clear?" Casia flushed, but remained silent. "Now, do you intend charging any officer present here with being incompetent to command their ships?" He was bullying the man, forcing him to publicly back down. Geary knew it. He shouldn't use his authority this way. He had to lead these officers, not drive them before him. But right now he was sick and tired of politics and of senior officers who seemed to enjoy politics even when it threatened the survival of the fleet. "Do you?" Geary pressed.
Casia's voice sounded strangled as he answered. "No."
"I'm the fleet commander and your superior officer, Captain Casia."
"No . . . sir."
"Thank you." Just relieve him for cause. Right now. Lock up Casia along with Numos and Faresa and Captain Kerestes and crazy Captain Falco. Toss in Commander Yin as well. Why do I need to keep tolerating these idiots? This fleet will be far safer if they aren't around to interfere with me. If they'd stop challenging –
Geary took a long, slow breath. Damn. I'm losing it. Where would that road end if I started down it? How many officers would I sack, making sure that only those loyal to me were in command? And once I'd sacked enough, the rest wouldn't dare speak up to me, tell me when I was mistaken or wrong. And this fleet would die, because my ancestors know how often I make mistakes, how often I'm wrong. "Colonel Carabali. Please continue."
The Marine colonel nodded as if nothing untoward as happened and continued her briefing. Nothing fancy or elaborate. The fleet would cruise past several other Syndic installations on its way in-system, blowing each apart in turn using hell-lance charged-particle cannon. But as the fleet got close to the fourth moon of the second gas giant it would begin braking and shuttles would launch, carrying a Marine strike force. With good timing of the maneuver the shuttles would have less than half an hour of flight time before the Marines set down. "Even if the Syndics somehow figure out exactly why the Alliance fleet wants to occupy this facility, that hopefully won't leave enough time for them to organize an effective defense or damage the stockpiles we need," Carabali concluded.
"We'll use the scout battleship division for close support in case the Marines need it," Geary added. "Exemplar and Braveheart have proven their skills in that work." They were also the only two surviving scout battleships, but nobody brought that up.
He indicated the arcs of the courses the fleet would follow, each leg curving through part of Baldur star system like sabers aimed at Syndic installations. "This will take more time than just heading straight for our objective. But we'll also slow to point zero five light speed to simplify the task of resupplying the fleet. You'll all receive the transit and resupply plan within the hour."
"We could do more damage if the fleet was divided into a few sub-formations," Captain Cresida of the battle cruiser Furious suggested. She had somehow remained silent through the debate but now couldn't resist arguing for more combat action if possible.
Geary nodded to acknowledge her point. Along with Tulev and Duellos, Cresida was one of his best ship commanders. "That's true. But I want to keep fuel cell usage to a minimum until we have those trace element stockpiles in our hands, and I don't want to break up squadrons and divisions to ensure everyone gets appropriate resupply."
"What about the Syndic warships?" Commander Neeson of the battle cruiser Implacable asked, not quite able to hide his disappointment at not being part of a fast moving strike force this time around.
Captain Desjani pointed to the display. "They've broken up. Two of the corvettes are heading for one of the jump points out of Baldur that we might use and the remaining corvette and the light cruiser are heading for the other."
Captain Duellos nodded. "Picket ships. One corvette will probably jump from each when they reach it to report our presence here, while the others wait to report which jump point we actually used."
It wasn't at all hard to read the dissatisfaction around the table at that, but there simply wasn't any way for the fleet to engage any of those Syndic warships. Even though the corvettes were slower than any ship in the Alliance fleet except the four auxiliaries, they just had too great a lead. "We're going to do a significant amount of damage to Syndic facilities in this star system," Geary pointed out. "And once again the Syndics are going to provide the raw materials our auxiliaries need to keep us going."
He could easily sense the lack of enthusiasm. Even his closest allies weren't thrilled, but what was there to be thrilled about? Baldur was just a waypoint in a long journey home. After Baldur they'd have to fight their way through Wendaya, then another star system, then another, then another . . .
They'd thrown the Syndics off their tracks with the lunge back into Syndicate Worlds' space to hit Sancere, but how much longer could they keep the Syndics from correctly guessing their next destination and mustering overwhelming force there?