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Excerpt From The Lost Fleet Series (Chapter One)

Beyond The Frontier: Dreadnaught

by Jack Campbell

Innumerable stars like brilliant diamonds carelessly flung across endless space shone upon the hull of the civilian passenger ship. Bright, but cold, their light far too distant to give any warmth, the stars formed constellations in which humans tried to find meaning.

Admiral John “Black Jack” Geary, watching those stars, thought about the fact that the constellations changed depending on where you were, but the meaning of it all somehow didn’t change.

Dreadnaught coverHe just wished he knew what that meaning of it all was. He had lost one battle, long ago, and discovered much later that the loss had meant something much different than he had imagined. Lately, he had won much bigger battles; but what those meant, what his future would be from this day forward, remained as uncertain as whatever messages the stars wrote across the sky.

The passenger ship had exited the hypernet gate at the particular star known to humans as Varandal. Over the dozen decades since it had been built, the ship had traveled between many stars, and while the stars themselves had burned on unchanging to the naked eye, the ship had felt those years.

Men and women had worked to keep its systems functioning and its hull strong, but where the life of stars was measured in billions of years, the life spans of human creations were often less than a century.

This ship was old, moving almost as deftly as ever, but feeling the accumulated stress of years in the materials from which it had been built. It should have been replaced long ago. However, a civilization caught in a seemingly endless war couldn’t afford such luxuries; instead, it diverted those resources to warships to replace countless other warships lost in countless battles.

But on this voyage, now that peace had come a month ago, the crew had spoken of rumors of new ships. No one knew for sure. So far, peace hadn’t brought any major improvements, hadn’t brought money or lives to replace what had been lost in the long war with the Syndicate Worlds. No one even knew exactly what “peace” was. No one living had been alive the last time humanity knew peace, before the Syndics attacked the Alliance a century ago.

No, that wasn’t right. One man still living had been alive then, miraculously surviving a century in survival sleep to lead the fleet to victory, to bring this peace, which somehow felt not all that different from the once-endless war that had finally come to an end. And now he looked at the stars and wondered what new turns awaited his life.

Alliance government warns of threat to all humanity from alien race.

Geary lowered his gaze back to the news headlines scrolling under the star display. “When we left Varandal a few weeks ago, the existence of intelligent aliens was still supposed to be secret.”

Sitting on the bed nearby, Captain Tanya Desjani glanced over at the headline before resuming her scrutiny of a ration bar. “We fought a battle with them. The whole fleet knows they’re out there.” She waved at another display set on one bulkhead, the new ring on one of her fingers flashing a moment as the star sapphire set within it caught the light.

A virtual window, the display showed another view outside their passenger ship; but on this one, the countless stars and the planets illuminated by the radiance of Varandal were dimmed by symbols revealing things invisible to human eyes from that distance. Hundreds of glowing images, representing the warships in the main Alliance fleet, hung apparently unmoving against the backdrop of space even though those warships were in fixed orbits about the star. The scene conveyed two very different sensations, one of them awe at the scale of humanity’s achievements. But against that awe was the reality that, as massive as the fleet’s battleships, battle cruisers, and lesser warships were in human terms, they were tiny when measured against the expanse of the star system and completely insignificant compared to even a small region of the galaxy.

Geary let his eyes linger on the view, realizing how much he had missed those still-unseen, utilitarian, and battle-scarred ships. His own home world had become foreign to him, but for all the changes a harsh century had wrought, the fleet had remained a place in which he felt he belonged. The men and women who had grown up with war and seen all of its terrors, who had been shaped in part by those bloody experiences, still remained sailors like him. Also, the formal end of hostilities with the Syndics should have brought rest from their labors, but this version of peace seemed unlikely to offer that. “I thought we were trying to figure out how to keep from fighting any more battles with the aliens. Why is the government now broadcasting all over the place their existence and the danger they pose?”

“Read some of the other headlines,” Desjani suggested before biting off a piece of the bar. “These Yanika Babiya ration bars aren’t bad. For ration bars, that is.”

Geary focused back on the news, trying to catch up after resolutely ignoring events for much of the past month. Ruling parties swept from power in special elections called in ninety-two star systems.

The Rift Federation has voted to renegotiate its ties to the Alliance.

Fingal becomes the thirty-sixth star system to demand reduction of its defense commitments and taxes to the Alliance central government.

Black Jack Geary, in comments made on Kosatka, offers only qualified support for the current government. “What? Qualified support? What the hell are they talking about? When that guy asked if I’d follow orders from the government, I said yes, I would.”

Desjani swallowed her bite of ration bar and raised an eyebrow at him. “You said that you’d follow all lawful orders.”

“So?” Geary demanded.

“‘Lawful’ is a qualifier. Even a dumb sailor like me knows that.”

“When did saying something that should be a given turn into something subversive?” Geary grumbled.

“When a majority of the population considers the elected government to be corrupt and full of crooks,” Desjani replied. “To many citizens of the Alliance, ‘lawful"’ implies sweeping out the criminals.”

“I shouldn’t have answered that guy.”

She shook her head. “And leave the question unanswered? ‘Black Jack Geary refuses to say he supports the government.’ That wouldn’t have produced a better outcome, darling.”

Her use of the endearment calmed him. “Was it only four weeks ago that we got married?”

“Twenty-six days. Even though we won’t be able to act as a married couple aboard my ship, you’re still expected to remember all anniversaries and significant dates, you know.” Desjani coolly took another bite.

“Yes, ma’am.” He liked seeing the annoyed look she usually gave him when he responded like her subordinate, but this time all Tanya did was shake her head at him. Geary eyed her, wondering at how composed she had been since their arrival in Varandal Star System, then finally realizing that Desjani always got calmer when she sensed combat approaching. “Do you expect something to happen when we dock at Ambaru station?”

“I’ve been expecting something since this ship arrived back in this star system, but everything seems quiet so far. No government ships intercepting us to arrest you, no mutinous fleet ships intercepting us to declare you dictator, and no fighting going on between any factions and the government.” She glanced around their compartment, a high-end passenger cabin whose dated but still-luxurious touches had disconcerted both Desjani and Geary since they were used to the fairly Spartan accommodations on warships. But the government in Kosatka had insisted on providing “appropriate” transportation when the orders demanding that Geary immediately return to Varandal were received. At least the charter had prevented having to deal with other passengers on the way back.

Desjani shook her head again, her eyes this time on the outside display. “Maybe it’s my ancestors talking to me. I can sense the tension here, like a star about to go nova, and I don’t like going into action aboard an unarmed ship.”

“It’s not a battle cruiser,” Geary agreed.

“It’s not my battle cruiser,” she corrected him. “I shouldn’t have left Dauntless for so long.”

“I’m sure she’s fine. Dauntless has a good crew.”

“Excuse me?”

“What I meant to say,” Geary quickly added, “is that Dauntless has the best crew in fleet. As well as an exceptionally good commanding officer.”

“You’re a bit biased when it comes to the commanding officer, but her crew is the best.” Desjani took a long, slow breath. “My point is that the government may not want you near any battle cruiser or any crew, and we don’t know if any of those warships are planning to act independently. Be prepared for anything when we dock.”

“The message from Duellos we got after arrival implied everything is quiet.”

She considered that, then shook her head. “We can’t be sure he really sent it, or that the content wasn’t modified en route to us.”

Geary closed his eyes to block out their comfortable surroundings, trying to get back into a combat mind-set. “Surely they aren’t still considering arresting me as a threat to the government.”

She grinned, her canines showing to give the expression a fierce cast. “They wouldn’t dare try that openly, now. But you could just disappear, and supposedly be on a special assignment. They’ll try something.”

“ ‘ They ’ ? Which ‘ they ’ do you mean?”

“Someone. There are a lot of possibilities. You’re too dangerous.”

He thought about the crowds they had encountered on Kosatka, Desjani’s home world. Often huge and always enthusiastic to the point of worshipful, they had been inescapable and unnerving in equal measure. Entire cities had seemed to pack into the streets for the chance of a glimpse of the great Black Jack Geary, legendary champion of the Alliance, the man who had stayed with his ship to the end, fighting off a surprise attack by the Syndics to allow other ships to escape. Everyone had thought that Geary had died during that fight at Grendel a hundred years ago; but he had been barely alive, frozen in survival sleep in a damaged escape pod. Geary had finally been found not long ago, awakening to find himself among people who had been taught to believe that he was an incomparable hero. Who do they think Black Jack actually is? I certainly don’t know. He’s someone the government dreamed up to inspire everyone when the initial Syndic surprise attacks knocked the Alliance back on its heels. “The next time the government tries to create a hero to motivate and inspire the population, they’ll probably try harder to make sure that hero is really, absolutely, positively dead.”

Desjani gave him one of those looks that could be as unnerving as the crowds. “The government thought it was creating an illusion. The politicians didn’t realize that the living stars had their own plans and that you could not only reappear, but also be in reality more than the official illusion claimed.”

“I thought that was over,” he mumbled, looking away. She had looked at him in exactly the same way when he had first awakened from a century of survival sleep. Belief in him and in what he could do, believing that he was someone sent by the living stars themselves at the behest of everyone’s ancestors to save the Alliance. Usually, now she seemed to see him as a man, and treated him as a husband and an officer; but occasionally her faith that he could be more than that shone through.

She leaned close, reaching to grasp his chin gently and turn his head to face her again. “I see you. I see who you are. Don’t forget that.”

The statement had two possible meanings, but he preferred to believe that it meant she knew he was human and very imperfect. His own ancestors knew that he had given her enough demonstrations of his fallibility since being awakened. “Who does the government see?”

“Good question.” Desjani leaned back, sighing. “In answer to your first question, though, about the aliens, as you can see from the rest of the news, the government is under so much pressure that it’s telling everyone about the aliens to distract them. The war held the Alliance together. The war excused all kinds of things. Now, thanks to you more than anyone else—and don’t try to deny that—we’re at peace, and if war is hell, then peace seems to be like herding cats. I didn’t figure that out myself, by the way. One of the politicians at that last reception on Kosatka told me that. He said that star systems all over the Alliance are rethinking their need for common defense now that the big, bad Syndic wolf at the door has been drop-kicked into the nearest black hole.”

“You talked to a politician?” Like most fleet officers, Desjani had a well-developed dislike of the political leadership, born of a century of inconclusive and bloody warfare and a need to attach blame for the failure to win.

She shrugged. “He’s an old friend of my mother. She vouched for him not being as bad as the others, and since my mother hauled me up to meet him, I couldn’t very well about-face and walk away. The point is, Admiral Geary, that he told me no one really knows how to handle peace. It’s been a hundred years since the war with the Syndicate Worlds started, so the politicians have never experienced an environment without an active threat. The government is falling back on what it knows. It thinks it needs a new threat to keep the Alliance unified. And it’s not like the aliens aren’t a threat. We know they’re willing to attack us. We know that they carried out hostile actions before the Alliance even knew they existed.”

“I wish those weren’t just about the only things we do know about them,” Geary grumbled, turning back to the headlines. Prisoners of war coming home soon, say authorities. Finally, some good news. Many men and women captured in the course of the apparently endless war, people who had never expected to see their homes again, would now be reunited with their loved ones. Bringing home the living would be a welcome job, even if it was tarnished by sad reality. Too many prisoners of war had already died far from their homes, during decades in captivity, their fates unknown. Tallying up the numbers and names of those who had died in Syndic prison camps would take long and cheerless years of investigation. “We’re cruel enough to our own kind. Why do we need hostile aliens to add to our problems?”

“Ask the living stars, darling. I’m just a battle cruiser captain. The answer to your question is way above my pay grade.”

The next headline bore no silver lining.

Reports of internal fighting in many star systems within Syndicate Worlds’ territory as Syndic authority continues to collapse.

“Damn. Whatever is left of the Syndicate Worlds is going to be a small fraction of the region it used to rule.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Desjani commented.

“Chaos will breed a lot more deaths and trouble for us,” Geary countered, indicating the next headline. Refugees fleeing fighting in former Syndic territory arriving in Alliance star systems.

She shrugged, but he could hear in her voice the tension that Desjani was trying to mask. “They’re Syndics. They started the war, they kept it going, and now they’re paying the price. You don’t actually expect me to feel sorry for them, do you?”

He thought about how many friends and companions Tanya had seen die in the war, including her younger brother. “No. I realize that very few people in the Alliance will shed any tears for the suffering of any Syndics.”

“With good cause,” Desjani muttered.

“I’ve never argued otherwise.”

One corner of her mouth curled upward in a sardonic smile. “You just reminded us that our ancestors and the living stars don’t look kindly on the slaughter of civilians or prisoners. Fine. We stopped killing everyone but combatants. But that doesn’t mean we want to help any Syndics who survived the war.”

“I know.” He still had trouble grasping that: how the long war had poisoned the natural human tendency to offer aid to those in distress, even if those others were former enemies. But then he had slept through the vast majority of that war, not felt it through every day of his life. “What I’m saying is, purely in terms of self-interest, the Alliance may have to help clean up the mess in what was Syndic territory. Something is going to replace Syndic authority in areas that slip from the grasp of the central government. Trying to ensure that those successor governments are representative and peaceful rather than dictatorial and aggressive just seems like smart policy.”

Instead of replying directly, Desjani glanced at his display. “Speaking of messes, how’s our own government doing these days?”

“Not too well, apparently. The next headline says ‘Newly elected Alliance senators demand investigations into wartime corruption.’”

“Investigating wartime corruption in the government would keep a lot of people busy for at least a few decades,” she observed.

“As long as I’m not one of them.” Geary read the next headline with growing disbelief. Authoritative accounts reveal that Black Jack demanded and received a free hand from the Alliance grand council for the campaign that ended the war. “That’s not true! I didn’t demand anything. Who the hell leaked that?”

Desjani took a look at the headline. “Somebody who’s unhappy at the way the politicians are all trying to claim credit for the end of the war. Some other politicians angling for advantage. Fleet officers who guessed at the truth and assumed you had to threaten the council. There are plenty of possibilities.”

“No wonder the government still sees me as a threat.”

“You are a threat,” she reminded him. “If you hadn’t convinced Captain Badaya and those like him that you’re actually running the government covertly, making the big decisions behind the scenes, then they would have already staged a coup in your name. Things could be worse.”

He studied the headlines again, trying to read between the lines. “Someone in the government must realize as well as we do what’s holding the fleet back. Overt action against me could still trigger a coup I couldn’t forestall, then civil war as some star systems simply pulled out of the Alliance in response.” It had taken a long time to accept that, the idea that the Alliance could be so frail, but a century of all-out warfare with its immense costs in lives and money had badly frayed the seams of the Alliance.

“That doesn’t mean they won’t still try something,” Desjani observed.

“Could the government be that stupid?”

She smiled scornfully. “Yes.”

Citizens’ coalitions demand that Black Jack be brought to Prime to clean up government, the next headline screamed. Next to a coup by his misguided supporters, Geary thought, that would be his worst nightmare. Why did anyone believe that the ability to command a fleet meant that he could also run a government? He looked at the display showing the distance remaining to Ambaru station and the time remaining until the ship docked, wondering what awaited him and Tanya there.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, her tone softer.

“I was just thinking.”

“You’ve been promoted to admiral again. I’m not sure that much thinking on your part is permitted.”

“Very funny.” His gaze went to the stars again. “Before... before the war started, I never worried that much about the future. Most of it was out of my hands. I had serious responsibilities as an officer in the fleet, and at the last as commanding officer of a heavy cruiser, but what we did and where we went was never up to me. Then the war happened, and I ended up in command of the fleet a century later. For months after that, the future was a very narrowly focused thing. We needed to get the fleet from one star to the next, and eventually home. Then we needed to deal with the Syndics and do something to hold off the aliens. The future aimed itself. Do this. Then do that. Figure out how, right now, or there’s no more future.”

Geary paused and looked toward her. Desjani met his eyes, her expression somber but calm. “Now, the future is a huge, vague thing. I have no idea what tomorrow is supposed to hold, what I should do, what I’ll be called upon to do. I know because of everything that’s happened that the future depends a lot upon my own actions and decisions. And I no longer have any idea where those should take us.”

She gave him one of those unnervingly confident looks. “Yes, you do, Black Jack. You have the same ideas you had when you assumed command of the fleet back then. Do the honorable thing, do the right thing, do the smart thing. Even if you’re tempted to do otherwise, you stick to what you believe in, and what you believe in is what our ancestors believed in. That, and you believe that we’re all worth saving. Which is why I know that if anyone can lead us through whatever the future brings, it’s you. And that is why not only me, but a lot of other people, will follow you and give you everything we’ve got.”

“As long as I’ve got you.”

That future didn’t aim itself,” Desjani said. “You had a lot of options. You chose the hardest one, and the most honorable one, and the right one. That’s why we’re together now.”

“You wouldn’t have—”

“Yes, I would have, and you know that. I would have done it because I thought you needed it, and what you needed to do was far more important than me or my honor. I was wrong. You were right.” She smiled. “Which isn’t to say that you aren’t wrong at times. But I’ll be here to let you know when that happens.”

They came out of the access from the passenger ship onto the dock at Ambaru station, side by side, both Geary and Desjani alert for trouble but trying to look relaxed despite their tension.

Two lines of armed ground forces soldiers awaited them, their weapons held in salute position, forming a corridor down which Geary and Desjani walked. Were the soldiers just an honor guard? Or thinly disguised muscle to back up another arrest attempt? This time he didn’t have Marines escorting him to prevent such an overreaction by the government.

At least the soldiers weren’t armored, instead resplendent in dress uniforms. If he was to be arrested, at least his captors would look their best.

On either side of the honor guard, more soldiers held back crowds packed into the walkways between docks, crowds who erupted into cheers at the sight of Geary. That was also a good sign since it seemed unlikely the government would be crazy enough to arrest him publicly. What would happen if the soldiers tried to restrain or arrest him, and he instead walked to the crowds? Would that one action be the loose thread whose unraveling would tear apart the Alliance?

Despite his nerves and discomfort with the adulation, Geary forced himself to smile and wave one hand to the crowds, then saw Admiral Timbale waiting at the end of the ramp and felt some of his tension draining off. Even though he was as political as most senior officers these days, Timbale had seemed both honorable and firmly in Geary’s camp before they left Varandal. Now Timbale saluted Geary and returned Desjani’s salute, giving the gestures the crispness of someone who had recently learned saluting and wanted to show off. “Welcome back, Admiral Geary. It’s nice to meet you in person, Captain Desjani.”

“Thank you, sir,” she replied, her return salute casually correct. Geary had no doubt that Desjani saluted in that fashion to subtly emphasize that, for her, the gesture had been common practice for months. “I’m surprised to see civilians here, sir,” she added, indicating the crowds.

Timbale’s smile hardened. “There weren’t supposed to be any. Your arrival was supposed to be quiet and low-key, to avoid ‘disruptions.’ Or so I was told. But somehow word got out, and once the civilians started crowding through the barriers to see Black Jack, what could we do?” He glanced around. “Standing orders from fleet headquarters came in two weeks ago. We’re to avoid any actions which ‘improperly highlight any individual officer’ and instead direct attention to ‘the achievements of all personnel.’”

“I can’t honestly object to that,” Geary commented. “In fact, I think it’s a good idea.”

“It is,” Timbale agreed, his tone becoming sardonic, “but since the brass at fleet headquarters got there by playing up their own roles in every success in every possible way, I find their newfound interest in individual humility by others a bit hard to swallow.” Nodding to the commander of the honor guard, Timbale turned to go. “If you and Captain Desjani will please accompany me?”

Geary followed, wondering if the honor guard would also come along. But the soldiers remained in place, their eyes straying to the sides to catch glimpses of him as he left.

Timbale nodded again as if reading his mind. “Nothing quite so obvious this time,” he muttered to Geary. “Especially with all of those spectators.”

“What is going on?” Geary asked.

“I don’t know exactly.” Timbale frowned as they entered passageways from which other military and civilians had apparently been barred, the path stretching empty before them. Metal and composite bulkheads, which in Geary’s time a hundred years earlier would have been covered by skins showing images of natural materials or outdoor scenes, were instead bare, revealing rough repairs and exposed surfaces, just another sign of the strains so many decades of war had put upon the Alliance and everything built to further the war. “Varandal is not technically in a state of martial law, but in practice it’s very close to that. The government seems to believe that if things are going to explode, Varandal will be the first charge to go off, and I don’t think I have to explain who they think the detonator will be.”

“Yet they’ve kept the fleet concentrated here,” Desjani observed.

“Yes, Captain,” Timbale agreed. “They’re afraid to keep it in one place, and they’re afraid to disperse it and not have it in one place where they can watch it all at once. So they’ve done nothing with it.” He quirked a smile at her. “Forgive my manners. Congratulations to you both. You must have had to move fast to get married in the brief interval when you were both captains and neither of you was in the other’s chain of command. You ticked off fleet headquarters no end, you know.”

“Thank you,” Geary replied, while Desjani just smiled. “It’s nice to know that we accomplished that much. Where are we going?”

“Conference room 1A963D5. I only know for certain who one of the occupants is.” Timbale gave Geary a glance. “Senator Navarro, chair of the grand council.”

“He’s not alone?”

“There are people with him, but I don’t know how many or who they are. The security perimeter is seven layers thick, and every layer is as tight as a sailor coming back from liberty.” Timbale hesitated, then spoke softly. “A lot of people assume that Navarro is here so you can give him orders. I don’t believe that’s the case because I’ve met you and spoken with you before, but I’ve heard plenty of assertions that you’re really pulling the strings.”

Geary was trying to figure out the right response when Desjani answered. “Strategic success may demand tactical deception, Admiral Timbale. Many officers are pleased to believe that the government is doing as Admiral Geary says.”

Admiral Timbale nodded. “Whereas they’d be unhappy if he wasn’t. I understand. But we’re balancing on a knife-edge here. Fleet headquarters keeps issuing draconian commands apparently designed purely to show that they’re in charge. The fleet is obeying, but they’re increasingly unhappy with the arbitrary and sometimes pointless demands.”

“I’ve heard from some of the warship commanders already,” Geary commented. “No one knows what’s going on. They just keep orbiting here.”

“I don’t know any more than anyone else, but the fact that the chair of the grand council is here makes it seem to me like they’ve been waiting for you to get back so they can tell you to do something.” Timbale frowned, uncertainty plain to read in him. “And they do intend to task the fleet with some mission. Even though funding is being cut all over the place, I’ve been directed to ensure that repairs continue here for all damaged warships. Given how much those repairs are costing, those orders must have come through the government as well as fleet headquarters. Keep them here, get them fixed. Those have been my orders.”

“Have you had the chance to talk to any fleet officers about what’s going on?” Geary asked.

“Yes, but most of them assume that you ordered the repairs to continue for reasons of your own. No one else seems to have any clues, which is very unusual. You know how hard it is to keep things secret.”

Desjani shook her head. “How can you properly prepare the fleet for a mission without knowing what the mission is?”

“Damned if I know.” Timbale let his unhappiness show. “The government stopped totally trusting the military decades ago, but it’s still annoying to be treated as though they don’t trust us. I’ve been told nothing of substance, just things like the orders for today, under the seal of the grand council regarding security arrangements. I also haven’t been invited to this meeting, Admiral Geary. I was told it was for you alone.”

Desjani kept her expression professionally unrevealing, but Geary could tell she wasn’t happy with that. Nor was he, until he considered having both of them firmly within seven layers of very tight security. “To tell you the truth,” Geary said to Timbale, “I think it might be good to know that you and Captain Desjani are outside the meeting, in communication with everyone else, and able to act or react as appropriate.”

This time, Timbale smiled tightly. “There are some parties who wouldn’t listen to me but will accept anything they’re told by the captain. It’s a given that she speaks for you.”

Geary caught the flash of melancholy in her eyes at that praise, but Tanya simply nodded. “I will keep an eye on things while you’re in the meeting, Admiral,” she said.

“You don’t have to be formal with your husband among just us,” Timbale advised her.

“Yes, sir, I do,” Desjani told him. “When in any professional context, he is Admiral Geary, and I am Captain Desjani. We’re both agreed on that.”

They turned a corner and at the other end of that corridor saw what must be the first layer of security, a checkpoint occupied by an entire squad of soldiers. “How many of these are there?” Geary asked Timbale.

“Enough soldiers and checkpoints spread through this sector of the station to occupy an entire ground forces brigade,” Timbale said. “No money for a lot of other things but plenty of money for obsessive security. Every way in and out, and I mean every way, has more than one checkpoint securing it. No communications in or out, either. Totally secure and totally isolated. Once you get past a couple of those checkpoints, you won’t be able to send or receive messages.”

Geary’s comm link beeped urgently. “I guess we’re lucky that whatever this is got here now.” He gave it a look, saw who the message was from, and called it up while still walking. As he read, he came to an abrupt halt, causing Timbale and Desjani to stumble to a stop as well and stare at him with mingled curiosity and worry. “What’s happened?” Desjani asked.

“Nothing yet. But—” Geary choked off his words, fury building inside him as he tried to stay calm. “Captain Duellos informs me that the fleet has just received notification of courts-martial charges being filed against a large number of commanding officers. He’s forwarded the message to me.”

If Timbale was feigning surprise and disbelief, he was doing a good job of it. “What? I haven’t seen—May I, Admiral?”

Geary offered his unit, and Timbale read rapidly. “Unbelievable. Over a hundred of the current commanding officers. The charges are technically justified, but what kind of idiot . . .” His jaw tightened. “Actually, I can think of several idiots who might be responsible. A few of them are assigned to fleet headquarters at the moment. I told you that headquarters was trying to assert their control, but I didn’t think they’d do something this stupid.”

“I see that I am also under charges,” Desjani said, her voice again deadly calm. “They want to gut the fleet’s command structure, Admiral.”

Timbale waved his free hand at the comm unit. “Every one of those commanding officers would have to be at least temporarily relieved of command! While we’re still trying to get the fleet repaired, refitted, and resupplied! It’ll cause total chaos!” He made a motion as if to throw the comm unit in frustration, then remembered that it was Geary’s and handed it back. “It’s a good thing you got here just before this broke. If it had been received earlier, all hell would have broken loose. You’re the only one who can stop a very serious overreaction by the fleet.”

But Desjani had adopted her combat-cool attitude again, her eyes fixed on Geary’s own. “It might be that you’re wrong, Admiral Timbale. Not about the fleet’s reaction, but about when this message was supposed to be received. Is it possible that somebody jumped the gun? Perhaps it was intended for this to be received by the fleet while Admiral Geary was already inside with representatives of the government and thus unable to learn of it in time to do anything about it while facing the government representatives, or to keep the fleet from immediately overreacting when the fleet heard of it.”

 “Is that the intention?” Geary asked from between clenched teeth. “Making the fleet overreact? My first thought was that this is directly aimed at me, because most of these officers could be seen as loyal to me, but . . .”

Admiral Timbale took a moment to calm himself, then shook his head. “Maybe. Maybe. But with you out of communications, we also wouldn’t have been able to tell the fleet what you were doing, what your status was. If anyone wanted to assume that you’d been seized by the government—”

“That’s too big,” Desjani said. “You’re right, Admiral Timbale. It could far too easily happen, but I can’t believe anyone would be stupid enough to want it to happen.”

“As opposed,” Geary said, “to being stupid enough to cause it unintentionally?”

Timbale nodded quickly. “Yes. That would fit with the other things that fleet headquarters has been doing. ‘We’re in charge!’ They probably got some reports back of the fleet’s attitudes toward their earlier dictates and are escalating with this.”

“Probably not the government, then?” Navarro had not struck Geary as the type, or as foolish enough to push such an action, but then, Geary wasn’t a politician.

“No.” Timbale looked down the passageway toward the checkpoint, where the soldiers were all pretending to be paying no attention to the obviously agitated cluster of high-ranking officers. “Where’s the advantage to the government? They’re worried about revolt, and this is just the sort of thing to trigger it. I don’t have a very high opinion of the intelligence of politicians, but even I know how good they are at self-interest and survival. I don’t see any self-interest or survival upside for the government in pushing this now in this manner. And he’s also inside the conference room waiting for you and out of communications, so he, too, wouldn’t know about this matter until your meeting was over.”

Desjani’s eyes narrowed. “That would give him deniability.”

“When he’s in charge of the government? Claiming he didn’t know what was going on wouldn’t help him at all. It would make him look worse. Assuming that the fleet didn’t blow the station open and kill him.”

“Being a martyr might help his reelection prospects,” Desjani suggested dryly. “Even I might be inclined to vote for a dead politician.”

“Dead heroes don’t always stay dead,” Timbale said, inclining his head toward Geary.

“So what do we do?” Desjani looked at Geary, as did Timbale.

That hadn’t changed, either. He didn’t even have any command assigned at the moment, but everyone was still looking to him for what to do. “We’re agreed that the bottom line is that the fleet will go ballistic. The order is from fleet headquarters. The only way to get it canceled is to go over fleet headquarters, to the government. I need to go on to this meeting. That’s the best way, and probably the only way, to get this matter resolved fast.”

“Sir,” Desjani said, “the blowup in the fleet has probably already started.”

“I know.” He brought up his comm unit, scowling as he saw the no-link icon. “Why can’t I send a message? I got that one a minute ago.”

Timbale grimaced. “It’s the station. We’ve got so many passageways, conduits, and compartments that act as reflectors, channels, and traps that it makes the perimeter of the security zone fluctuate. There’s no telling how far back you’ll have to go to get a link again.”

“We don’t have time for that.” He pushed record and spoke with care. “All warships in Varandal Star System, this is Admiral Geary. I have just been apprised of the communication regarding charges against many fleet officers. I am in the process of dealing with it. All units are to hold in assigned orbits and to refrain from any unauthorized actions. To the honor of our ancestors, Geary, out.”

He handed the comm unit to Desjani. “I need you to start putting out this fire now. Get outside the security block and transmit that, then keep anyone from doing anything stupid.”

“I’m not one of the living stars,” Desjani complained as she took the comm unit. “And even they can’t stop stupid.”

“If you tell everyone that I just found out and am dealing with it, they’ll believe you. They’ll listen to you.”

Her eyes locked on his. “In what capacity am I acting? According to this message, I should immediately surrender command of Dauntless.”

“You are commanding officer of Dauntless until you hear otherwise from me.” It wasn’t proper. It wasn’t by the book. He had no authority to tell her that except for his superior rank. But Black Jack Geary could get away with doing it. If he didn’t disregard the book at that moment, then the mess facing them would spiral into a destructive reentry very quickly. “Admiral Timbale, I would appreciate your assistance to Captain Desjani in this matter. I don’t know how much influence she’ll have over nonfleet military in this star system.”

“Probably more than you think,” Timbale suggested. “Everyone knows your... relationship. But it will take both of us to try to keep a lid on this. If I read attitudes in the fleet correctly, they’ll be certain these charges are just the first salvo, and your arrest will be right behind it. Too many warships will want to start peeling this station open like an onion until they get you out. And if that happens, somebody else will surely shoot back.”

“Maybe I should go back with you,” Geary said. “Postpone the meeting and –”

“Then the government might well assume that you’re behind the fleet’s sudden aggressive movements! There’s no guarantee that the fleet will immediately accept messages from you as being legitimate, unforced, and unaltered.”

All he could was look to the one person who had never failed him. “Tanya.”

Desjani held up both hands. “All right. I’m on it, Admiral. I’m not Black Jack Geary, but I’ll do my best.” Another one of those sayings common in the fleet that made Geary wince when he heard them, but in this case all too literally true. She stepped back and saluted.

He returned the salute, thinking of all the things that could go wrong, of all the Alliance military units and warships in that star system suddenly erupting into a burst of fratricidal warfare, and of the number of people who would surely die if that happened. Possibly including Tanya. The Alliance itself might well die as a result, spinning apart with less bedlam than the Syndicate Worlds but with the same apparently unstoppable momentum. “Good luck, Tanya.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’m a bad-ass battle cruiser captain. You’re the one who has to keep the politicians and fleet headquarters from screwing up the universe. If anyone can stop them, it’s you.”

“Thanks. I appreciate the lack of pressure.”

“Don’t mention it. And don’t take too long in that meeting, or there won’t be much left of this star system.”

 

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